About 40 advocates for gun regulations gathered last Wednesday to plan for the 2016 General Assembly, which opens Wednesday. (Photo by Tina Griego)
One day after President Obama’s emotional call for further regulation of guns, about 40 people, nearly all of them women, fill a meeting room at a West End public library to talk about how to make that happen in Virginia.
Lori Haas and Andrew Goddard, both Richmonders, are sitting in the front row. Haas’ daughter, Emily, and Goddard’s son, Colin, are both survivors of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Colin was shot four times. Two bullets grazed Emily’s head.
Later in the meeting, Haas will say she regrets waiting until her daughter had been shot to become an advocate for gun reform.
“I wish to God I hadn’t waited. Emily is fine, but she was in a classroom with 18 students. Eleven died and she and six classmates went home.” In all, 27 students and five faculty members died in that shooting.
Haas, now the Virginia director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, was among those invited to the East Room of the White House for Tuesday’s announcement.
“It was a very moving movement,” she tells the room at the end of the night. “There were so many people there in the audience whose loved ones had been shot or killed or injured. I met families from Aurora [Colorado], Andy and Barbara Parker, whose daughter, Allison, was shot and killed on live TV … Mrs. (Cleopatra) Pendleton, whose 15-year-old daughter (Hadiya) was shot walking to a park in Chicago, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter was shot and killed in the Aurora movie theater. I could go on and on and on … It was a heart-rending day and a heart-lifting one at the same time.”
Wednesday’s meeting of the local chapter of Moms Demand Action (for Gun Sense in America) was planned before the president’s announcement that he would use his executive authority to expand background checks of gun buyers, among other things. But the timing and message, one week before Virginia’s General Assembly opens, provided the group a boost. Since the Virginia Tech shootings, state lawmakers have moved decidedly in the direction of gun rights, lifting the one-gun-a-week purchase limit and allowing concealed-carry permit holders to carry their weapons into establishments that serve alcohol.
Moms Demand Action, which is now a partner with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, formed in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting three years ago. So, Obama’s invocation of the 20 children and six adults killed there and his tears upon mentioning first-graders denied the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was particularly moving for this group.
“I guess you can say gun violence was on my consciousness before Sandy Hook, but that brought it to a whole new level,” says Brooke Plotnick, mother of an elementary school student. “I did live in Roanoke during Virginia Tech and am a school teacher, though not currently in the classroom. And it was baffling, [Blacksburg] being this bucolic small town 45 minutes from where I was living. It was totally absurd and enraging and frankly now, when I think about it, I remember thinking my classroom had windows on two sides and the door didn’t lock and it was small and there was no room to hide.”
Plotnick is one of about a dozen first-timers to an MDA meeting, though she has been involved in its robust social media network. Still, she is pleasantly surprised to hear the group leaders emphasize support for the Second Amendment. "The debate is so often cast as an either-or argument, everyone neatly in one camp or the other, when that has not been my experience, and can be so polarizing that it shuts down discourse," Plotnick says.
The group's emphasis is deliberate, both a fact and a political necessity in polarized times.
“We are not a group that has any intention of banning your weapon or taking your weapon,” Gena Reeder, the former Virginia chapter director of MDA, tells the room. “We have many gun owners in our ranks, but these are responsible gun owners, they are people who enjoy shooting sports. I enjoy shooting sports. My family grew up hunting. We’re Virginians; this is just what we do. It is part of the fabric of our lives. But there is a space where we can preserve our rights and we can also save lives. That is what we are seeking.”
Top of the group’s agenda are universal background checks and forbidding domestic violence abusers who have protective orders against them from possessing firearms, she says.
Goddard, the president of the Virginia Center for Public Safety, has come with copies of his at-a-glance list of 37 gun-related bills filed in advance of the eight-week General Assembly session, which opens Wednesday.
“In 2015, we had 73 bills,” Goddard says. “This is going to be a longer session, so I expect we will have 80 bills, maybe a little more. A ridiculous amount of stuff to keep up with and keep in your head, but if you look at this, it’s a color-coded system … If we don’t like it, it’s in red. If we like it, it’s in green.” (Red bill: “Possession of concealed handgun, faculty members at public institutions of higher education.” “Permitless concealed carry.” Green: “Reinstate the one-handgun a month [purchase] limit.” “Prohibits the sale of magazines designed to hold more than 10 bullets.”)
The meeting goes on until the public address system announces the library is closing. Come to the Jan. 18 Advocacy Day at the State Capitol, the plea goes out. Call your legislators. Bring signs, but not on sticks, because you can openly carry a gun on Capitol grounds, but not a stick. Call committee members. Don’t underestimate the opposition, because it is well-funded and well-organized and has a powerful voter base.
An uphill battle is ahead, Reeder and the others say, but the mood is determined. “There’s a vibe out there,” says Laura Quisenberry, soon to start a West End chapter of the group. “I think people are hitting a wall and when you hit the wall, you say, ‘OK, I gotta do something.’ Not everyone can speak up because they are gone, they are victims of gun violence. Someone needs to speak on their behalf and I am here and they are not, and that space needs to be filled and I’m happy to do it.”
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