By Thomas Kapsidelis
The traumas suffered by so many communities across the nation in the violent summer of 2019 have receded from the public’s attention.
And that’s a problem.
On May 31, Virginia Beach will mark one year since an employee fatally shot 12 people at the city’s municipal center. Gun violence nationwide over the months that followed led to a headline in The New York Times describing the season as “An American Summer Stained in Blood,” with 126 people slain in 26 mass shootings between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In one weekend alone, 22 were killed in El Paso, Texas, and nine in Dayton, Ohio.
For a nation in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic — preceded by the impeachment and serial crises of governance — those tragedies may seem distant. But for survivors, their families and friends, the physical and emotional wounds remain fresh, as they will be for years to come. At the same time, images of suffering and deaths as a result of the pandemic can contribute to retraumatization for survivors.
As the author of a book that examined the decade after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings – at the time the nation’s worst contemporary mass shooting – I’ve spoken with so many people who’ve said they feel buffeted by how tragedies seem to follow one another with the focus on reforms fading in and out. A parent of one of the students killed at Tech told me he understood how that could be seen as “old news.”
Attention spans are short and there is so much to fix.
But as a splintered nation struggles with the appropriate response to the pandemic ahead of a critical election, it’s important to recognize that gun violence is also a public health problem. Decisions in both debates should be informed by science, empathy and a continuing respect for the immediate and long-term implications of trauma recovery. There is another important intersection here – that quarantine circumstances can lead to situations where domestic abusers, people at suicide risk and children can endanger themselves and others through access to weapons.
Amid it all, some believe issues should be resolved by who can bring the most guns to the table.
The images of armed protesters at the state Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, demonstrating against coronavirus restrictions mirrored those earlier this year in Richmond when the Virginia General Assembly considered gun safety legislation.
The legislature’s first attempt on the issue ended badly. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, summoned the legislature on July 9 in response to the Virginia Beach slayings. But Republicans who then held narrow majorities in the House and Senate shut down the session within 90 minutes.
Voters responded in the fall by swinging control of both chambers to Democrats after campaigns that highlighted gun safety measures. Gun rights advocates countered by fostering the symbolic adoption of Second Amendment “sanctuary” or support designations by more than 130 localities and sending armed supporters to the Capitol.
But in a state where polls have shown consistent support for gun safety measures, lawmakers enacted historic reforms, including extreme risk protection orders, universal background checks and return to a former state law that restricted handgun purchases to one a month.
The achievements represented a victory for Virginia Tech families whose long, determined push for gun safety legislation persevered during an era of expanded gun rights in the years following the shootings in Blacksburg. The legislation was a defeat for the National Rifle Association, based in Virginia, and its champion in the White House.
Northam, a physician and former Army doctor who treated wounded soldiers, found himself under attack this month from President Donald Trump, whose only loss in the South in 2016 came in Virginia.
Trump told a farm group that gun rights were in danger in Virginia and there would be “nobody guarding your potatoes.” Northam tweeted in response that he grew up on a Virginia farm, that the state’s potatoes were fine and “as the only medical doctor among our nation’s governors, I suggest you stop taking hydroxychloroquine. Let’s all get back to work.”
Getting back to work at the federal level ought to include protecting the economy and workers while viewing the nation’s health through the broadest lens possible – not just through the prism of personal rights taking precedence over public safety.
In reading a recent Times story on the trauma experienced by doctors, nurses and other health care providers, I saw parallels in the continuing issues faced by police and first responders from the Tech shootings, when 32 students and professors were killed.
One of the outcomes of the tragedy was the formation of the Virginia Law Enforcement Assistance Program, which helps officers traumatized by what they’ve experienced in the line of duty. It’s an example of how an expansive view of recovery and healing can reach people in ways we might not have thought possible.
As this summer gets underway, there’s a renewed opportunity to focus on those whose lives have been lost – this year, in 2019 and earlier – and build reforms that honor their memories.
Thomas P. Kapsidelis, a longtime former editor at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is the author of “After Virginia Tech: Guns, Safety, and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings,” published by The University of Virginia Press