Q&A: After Virginia Tech, survivors advocated for tighter gun laws. Instead they’ve gotten looser

By: - June 7, 2019 1:10 pm

Potential buyers try out guns which are displayed on an exhibitor’s table during the Nation’s Gun Show on November 18, 2016 at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The show is one of the largest in the area. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

After the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, survivors and their families spent years advocating to reform and tighten the state’s gun laws.

Their efforts gained little traction in the General Assembly, which has instead loosened restrictions, repealing a 1993 law that limited handgun purchases to one a month.

It’s a dynamic that former Richmond Times-Dispatch editor Tom Kapsidelis says inspired his recent book, “After Virginia Tech,” which follows advocates who pressed for change, but over the years found it increasingly difficult to capture lawmakers’ attention as memories of the killings faded into “old news,” as one father whose son was killed put it.

The following interview with Kapsidelis, who spent three years researching the shooting and its long aftermath as a fellow at Virginia Humanities, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Virginia Mercury: You covered Virginia Tech as an editor at the RTD. In the immediate aftermath did you imagine that there wouldn’t be any reforms or changes at the state level? Or did it seem more like a situation where it was like, ‘Oh wow, things have changed.’

Tom Kapsidelis

Kapsidelis: When I came back from working in Blacksburg the week of the shooting, I sensed a lot of compassion and empathy for the Virginia Tech community, for the survivors and the families, and of course those who had been killed and injured. And I really thought perhaps this could be a moment where perhaps some changes could be enacted. Over the next three years, when I saw how that had not taken place, it’s one of the factors that led me to examine this in a book — how a state that had really grieved so deeply over the losses of Virginia Tech could at the same time be unable to enact reforms to make its citizens safer.

Did you find any satisfying answers on that front?

In our country a lot of social and political changes are incremental and I think those who have done this over a period of time recognize it’s something they’re in for the long haul and it takes time to enact changes. Certainly with the numerous and repeated incidents of gun violence since then, there is legitimate impatience and one would hope that there could be some doors opening.

That incrementalism — do you feel like there’s any reason to think anything will be different following the shooting in Virginia Beach?

I think a lot depends on what happens in the elections this fall. I think given the partisan divide, you can always have hope that people who voted one way might switch and recognize that action needs to be taken, but it hasn’t happened yet. The divide is so clear there, you would have to think there would need to be some change in the makeup of the body before there could be some reforms, but I would be hopeful people would look at what happened in Virginia Beach as another awful incident where friends and neighbors and coworkers were killed and injured and it requires contemplating action no matter what your political stripe is.

You write about how the one-hand-gun a month law was repealed in 2012 a few weeks before the fifth anniversary of the shooting. How did advocates react to that?

It was considered a blow, especially at the time at which it came. The people who were the strategists and helped campaign to get the law passed in 1993, they very much felt it was part of a complete package that would help keep the state safer.

Where there has been movement in Virginia, it’s been toward mental health resources and funding, and that’s something we’ve seen Republican lawmakers who don’t support restricting access to guns focus on. Do people feel like there were any substantial changes on that front? 

Gov. Kaine advocated for and won passage of mental health reforms after the shooting, including a large infusion of money that was then cut from the budget during the great recession. Quality, accessible mental health care is important for the entire population. I think it’s important, though, to understand that many, many people have mental health afflictions and they’re not prone to violence. I think what makes our problems in the United States more difficult is easy access to weapons.

Do you have a sense of whether the subjects of your book are surprised that resistance to gun reform has been so strong? The stuff I’ve seen move to the floor of the Senate has been to loosen gun restrictions. 

I can’t be a spokesperson for many different people, but I think a lot of people would have expected that after Virginia Tech there could have been some movement. I think people certainly felt that after Sandy Hook. I think on one hand there is recognition that change takes time, but also a sense that we are really in a crisis situation and that the wheels need to turn faster.

I can only imagine how frustrating it would be to come back to the General Assembly year after year to advocate for things that you know are unlikely to pass but to continue to put yourself out there like that. What has been keeping people going?

It’s tough, but I think there’s a lot of dedication. I think there’s a lot of spirit of not giving up a good fight and pushing for what they believe ought to take place. I think people who come year after year are courageous and they’re doing what advocates for change need to do by being persistent.

“After Virginia Tech” was published in April by The University of Virginia Press and is available in bookstores. Kapsidelis will give a talk and field questions at Book People Richmond on Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.