Last Tuesday morning began with an air of hope. Undeterred by National Rifle Association advocates with "Guns Save Lives" stickers, gun-reform activists from across the state filled the Capitol building in hopes of witnessing the gun violence prevention special session from the packed galleries.
The governor had called the session of the General Assembly in response to the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach in which a city employee killed 12 people.
I was accompanying my friend, a local pastor and his granddaughter who had been shot as a child and survived. His granddaughter, who wishes to remain anonymous because she refuses to be defined by the shooting, has worked hard to overcome her injury and lead a full life.
We were seated in a section of the Senate gallery reserved for survivors, near Markiya Dickson's parents Mark Whitfield and Ciara Dickson, and Andrew Goddard, whose son was shot and injured at Virginia Tech.
Most in the gallery, survivors and people who were directly impacted especially, were waiting eagerly for substantive gun safety proposals to be discussed and voted on, including:
• universal background checks
• a ban on assault weapons
• reinstating the one-gun-a-month law
• child-access prevention programs
• a requirement for people to report lost or stolen firearms
• allowing localities to ban guns from municipal buildings and parks
• red flag laws, which permit police or family members to petition a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from someone who may present a danger to themselves or others.
Our hopes were soon dashed.
Ninety minutes into the session, around 1:30 p.m., abruptly and without explanation, there was a motion and a vote to adjourn, with 20 votes in favor and 18 opposed. The session was over before it had really begun.
House Republicans, who hold a majority of 51-49 only because a crucial race was decided for the GOP candidate by a random drawing in 2018, pulled the plug on the session, leaving thousands of engaged residents who'd come from all over the commonwealth to amble back to their cars and buses, disappointed.
I thought of the Richmond residents directly impacted by gun violence who had spoken at that morning's Richmond Stands United Against Gun Violence Unity Vigil.
Organized by the Richmond branch of the Virginia NAACP and the Richmond Peace Education Center, it was held at the Bell Tower on the Capitol grounds. It opened the day of the session by highlighting the voices of Richmonders who have been directly affected by gun violence. Importantly, elected officials with power stayed for the full hour and heard the voices of Richmond's survivors.
James J. Minor, president of the Richmond branch of the Virginia NAACP, shared in his welcoming remarks: "I've personally attended over 100 funerals over the past decade in reference to gun violence." He added "it's time to get radical about this."
Speaker Marco Thomas, a Richmond resident who had been shot eight times, supports changes to gun laws. But he added, after we pass the laws, then what?
"We need a lot of healing to go on. We need a lot of trauma healing to go on. We need a lot of conflict resolution. We need a lot of love."
For our region and our commonwealth, the issue of gun violence is not just a safety issue. It's fundamentally a justice issue. Black children and teens are 14 times more likely than white children of the same age to die by gun homicide. We see in our own region the inequity. Communities of color absorb the overwhelming concentration of the trauma, pain and loss from guns.
We must get to a place where we are all, everyone in the entire state, safer from guns. And we absolutely must get to a place children in the Richmond region, regardless of the color of their skin or their ZIP code, are equally safe from guns — safe in their parks, safe in their streets and safe in their schools.
That means that we can't sit back to simply wait for the General Assembly to act.
We must act now to heal communities and invest in those communities most impacted by gun violence — with jobs, community programs, conflict resolution training, trauma healing and solutions driven by the communities themselves.
We all want to see gun reform. It's overdue. Just as overdue are investments in those neighborhoods most affected and a real strategy for equity and healing.
Half a century ago civil rights leader Ella Baker said "we who believe in freedom cannot rest" until the lives of black mothers' children are valued as highly as the lives of white mothers' children. The failure of this General Assembly to act, and the continuing disparities in gun homicide and injury in our region, our commonwealth and our country, show us we cannot rest.
The voices of Richmonders affected by gun violence must continue to be heard.
Adria Scharf is director of the Richmond Peace Education Center (rpec.org)
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