Guns, not mental illness, at heart of America’s terror 

November 30, 2022 12:02 am

Lezeria Marsh of Chesapeake leaves a message on one of the memorial crosses in the Walmart parking lot Monday in Chesapeake after a store manager shot and killed six other employees before killing himself. “It’s just so unbelievable,” Marsh said. (Roger Chesley / Virginia Mercury)

Researchers and policymakers know the ways to reduce gun violence and needless murders across the country. They include disarming domestic abusers, banning so-called “weapons of war” that allow attackers to keep firing without reloading and requiring background checks for all gun sales.   

Studies and reporting from The Washington Post, the Center for American Progress and think tanks provide these directives.  

Will our politicians answer, in the wake of the ghastly execution of six Walmart workers in Chesapeake by an angry colleague last week, before he killed himself? Or will the people in power continue to do nothing? 

I live roughly five miles from that Chesapeake store. Besides those killed, other workers were wounded.  

As I toured the parking lot memorial to the slain employees, interviewed people paying respects and attended a Monday night vigil featuring Gov. Glenn Youngkin, I became part of an all-too-familiar, depressing loop:

Mass shooting occurs. Journalists descend. People who knew the suspect weigh in, sometimes expressing shock. Relatives of the victims grieve. Progressives demand restrictions on gun access. Conservatives answer with some variable of “now is not the time” to discuss guns (see Youngkin’s response last week, as if from a script). 

Virtually nothing changes. 

And repeat … with another mass shooting elsewhere in America only days later. That doesn’t include the daily carnage that claims one or two lives at a time. 

Aren’t we weary of this? Why is the status quo acceptable when no other industrialized, wealthy nation shares such constant bloodshed?  

Resolve must replace our collective shock. Congress passed compromise firearm legislation this year after 21 elementary school students and teachers were killed in Uvalde, Texas. More can and should be done.  

Part of the memorial in the Walmart parking lot in Chesapeake has white crosses, flowers, balloons and the names of the six employees shot dead by a disgruntled store manager there. (Roger Chesley / Virginia Mercury)

Youngkin comforted hundreds gathered at Chesapeake City Park on Monday evening, combining words from Scriptures with messages of hope for the future. His appearance, in that regard, was welcome. 

“We must mend our wounds of grief,” the governor said, “with an unyielding determination to change the conditions of our society that have increasingly bred a culture of despair, of disillusion and a lack of respect for human life.” 

Youngkin, however, wouldn’t even use the words “guns,” “firearms” or “large-capacity magazines” in explaining why he journeyed from Richmond to the commonwealth’s second-largest city. What happened in Chesapeake wasn’t an accident; it was gun-fueled murder. 

Yet the Republican guv readily cited mental illness as a contributing factor, as if it were divorced from the tool that had left families in mourning. “I’m not alone,” he said, “in concluding that we have a mental health and a behavioral health crisis in the United States and in Virginia.”  

That’s a cop-out. “Mental illness” has become the default GOP explanation when a mass shooting happens – even though it was associated with just 5% of gun-related homicides between 2001 and 2010, according to a 2015 study.  

The Chesapeake massacre occurred less than two weeks after authorities said a University of Virginia student fatally shot three football players in Charlottesville and wounded two others. 

On Monday, Carol Kegg was among those paying respects at the Walmart parking lot in Chesapeake. “It’s just heartbreaking,” the 68-year-old mother and grandmother told me.  

Kegg, like others I interviewed, was especially saddened by the death of employee Fernando Chavez-Barron, a 16-year-old who was the youngest murder victim.  

At the vigil, a Chesapeake city councilman said Fernando had been a good student who loved to read. The teen had started working to “lessen the burden for his family.” 

A Walmart employee who narrowly escaped injury filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the company, saying Walmart ignored her complaints about the shooter’s alarming behavior, The Virginian-Pilot reported. Andre Bing, the 31-year-old shooter, had asked the plaintiff whether she liked guns and told store employees and managers if he was fired he would retaliate, according to the suit.

I wrote previously Virginia has taken some steps to fight back. For example, the General Assembly passed a red-flag law to temporarily seize guns from people believed to pose a threat to themselves or others, and it restarted a limit on buying one handgun a month.  

Many of the changes occurred when Democrats controlled both chambers and held the governor’s seat. That’s not the case now. 

It’s obvious state and federal leaders could do more. The recommended steps won’t eliminate gun crimes and slayings, especially when Americans own an estimated 400 million firearms. Any measurable drop in deaths and injuries, though, would be a plus because more people – and their loved ones – would be spared. 

The prescriptions (many of them national) are multifaceted. Of the ones I didn’t mention earlier, they include holding gun dealers more accountable for the firearms they sell; implementing waiting periods for purchases, which seem to lower suicides; and supporting local violence intervention programs

We could also do what the Czech Republic has done: It forces residents to show their competence before they can own a gun, as The Washington Post reported. They must pass a multiple-choice test and demonstrate they can handle a weapon safely and shoot accurately. 

I know that’s not likely to fly in this independent-minded nation. How dare I suggest training before picking up a tool designed to kill or maim. 

We should be open, however, to altering mindsets. Too many people have lost too much. 

More than 45,000 people died by gunfire last year, the bulk of them suicides. That’s about equal to every man, woman and child in Blacksburg.  

When the numbers are added up for 2022, they’ll include the employees who died at Walmart just days before Thanksgiving. 

Do right by them – and thousands of others. Let’s end this madness. 


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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]