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Moms Demand Action seeks greater role in gun reform debate

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At a sparsely-attended meeting on the evening of Monday, Sept. 10, in the West End, local and state officials covered a lot of ground regarding gun safety.

Held by the gun reform advocacy group Moms Demand Action, the meeting featured a panel of Mayor Levar Stoney, Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham and Virginia Delegate Dawn Adams. The panelists discussed school shootings, access to firearms, police involvement in low-income communities and intersectionality in the national debate over gun control.   

Sarah Harper, president of the Richmond chapter of Moms Demand Action, says the group is gearing up for the General Assembly's 2019 legislative session. In order to increase their presence in front of legislators, members are putting together a rapid response assembly team to be on call to attend meetings at the last minute.

"I'll sometimes get a phone call at 10 a.m. saying there's a committee hearing at 1 p.m.," Harper says. "It's nice to have a group of volunteers I can call or email immediately who can be down at the capitol."

The usual political frustrations were clear during the meeting.

Durham explains that he has approached Virginia's delegates with his own gun-related proposition to no avail. He says legislators "ripped [him] up" and accused him of infringing on the rights of gun owners for seeking to require them to report firearm thefts within 24 hours. That policy change would help law enforcement more efficiently track down guns that have ended up in the wrong hands, Durham says.

"I would like to sit there and have a conversation," he says. "How can we work together? Help me help our city."

Stoney, who shared a story about a local woman who recently lost her granddaughter to gun violence, wants to see more active engagement.

"It's one of the issues of our time that we must solve," he tells Style after the panel. "Not 10 years from now, not 20 years from now, but today. And that's why elections like the midterms are so important. … Because we have an opportunity to finally get voices heard."

He also called for more political engagement from those concerned.

"It's one thing to show up at a church on a Monday evening," he continues. "It's another thing to show up during the day at a hearing before the members of the General Assembly who are from communities across the state and tell the story about how their grandson or their daughter was taken away from them because of a firearm."

Adams, a Democrat who represents potions of Richmond and Chesterfield and Henrico counties, acknowledges that the General Assembly is gridlocked along party lines when it comes to the gun control debate. Among constituents, though, there's more common ground. She says open dialogue, especially between mothers whose first priority is the safety of their children, is the only way to keep the conversation going in a way that's productive. Adams compares guns to cars, asking why weapons created to wound and kill aren't regulated in the same way as automobiles, which can also be deadly.

"There's an honor and a respect around guns that we should all have because they are dangerous and deadly if they're not well-utilized," Adams says.

The day after the panel, the House Select Committee on School Safety released a list of nearly 60 recommendations for making Virginia's schools safer. Members made it clear upon its formation that gun violence would not be on its list of discussion topics, and there's no mention of firearms on the list.  

Harper says she would have liked to see red flag laws, which would allow police to temporarily remove firearms from owners who are putting themselves or others at risk, or a policy promoting safe gun-storage training within schools. But even though the committee hasn't directly addressed the issue of gun violence, Harper says she's encouraged by some of the proposed policies.

"They are, in a roundabout way, talking about prevention," she says. "It's good to see items such as increased funding for mental health services and lowering the ratio of counselors to students. All of those are good to see, because a lot of times prevention is the key." S

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