Rally

Peter Read, father of Mary Read--one of 32 people killed in the Virginia Tech mass shooting--remembers his daughter during a recent rally outside NRA headquarters to commemorate the tragedy’s 10-year anniversary.

It is just before 10:30 a.m. on April 14.

About 80 activists and community members have convened on the sidewalk outside the NRA headquarters in Fairfax.The low hum of a Tibetan singing bowl struck with a wooden mallet follows each recited name:

Ross A. Alameddine. Christopher James Bishop. Brian R. Bluhm. Ryan Christopher Clark. Austin Michelle Cloyd. Jocelyne Couture-Nowak. Kevin P. Granata. Matthew Gregory Gwaltney.

A cluster of people encircles the reader, their heads bowed and faces set in solemn expressions.

“We are Virginia Tech. We are Virginia Tech,” John K. Bergen, public health and safety coordinator for the Brady Campaign’s Northern Virginia Chapter, chants into a megaphone. “We will never go away.”

More names:

Caitlin Millar Hammaren. Jeremy Michael Herbstritt. Rachael Elizabeth Hill. Emily Jane Hilscher. Jarrett Lee Lane. Matthew Joseph La Porte. Henry J. Lee. Liviu Librescu.

Those not gathered directly around Bergen face the street bearing signs with slogans like “Remember the 32” or “Guns are the problem, not the solution.”

They have erected a series of white T-shirts attached with clothespins to a cord wrapped around poles driven into grass along the street curb. Each T-shirt bears a handwritten name accompanied by an age, the initials “VT,” and a pinned ribbon of orange outlined in maroon.

Members of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Reston-Herndon Alliance to End Gun Violence, and other gun violence prevention organizations have held protests outside NRA headquarters on the 14th day of every month since Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

April 14, 2017 marked the 52nd protest, according to Martina Leinz, leader of the Northern Virginia chapters of both the Brady Campaign and the Million Mom March.

However, this time, demonstrators come not just to demand action, but also to mourn for the 32 lives lost nearly 10 years ago on Apr. 16, 2007, when a Virginia Tech student with a gun conducted the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

More names:

G.V. Loganathan. Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan. Lauren Ashley McCain. Daniel Patrick O’Neil. Juan Ramon Ortiz-Ortiz. Minal Hiralal Panchal. Daniel Alejandro Perez Cueva. Erin Nicole Peterson.

Peter Read takes over the microphone after Bergen finishes another “We are Virginia Tech” chant.

The Annandale resident wears a baseball cap with the word “dad” stitched under Virginia Tech’s logo. His daughter, Mary, was 19 when Seung-Hui Cho fatally shot her and 29 other people in Norris Hall, home to Virginia Tech’s Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics.

Read intones the final eight names on the list of the massacre’s victims:

Michael Steven Pohle, Jr. Julia Kathleen Pryde. Mary Karen Read. Reema Joseph Samaha. Waleed Mohamed Shaalan. Leslie Geraldine Sherman. Maxine Shelly Turner. Nicole Regina White.

Ten years ago, on April 14, 2007, Mary Karen Read returned to Annandale. The college freshman wanted to spend some time at home with her grandparents, who were visiting for the weekend.

When Sunday evening arrived, Mary took a bus back to Blacksburg and brought along a slice of pumpkin pie that she had baked.

Peter Read tried to get a hold of his daughter when he heard that there had been a shooting incident at Virginia Tech, but his calls and texts received no response.

He had almost completed the drive down to the university’s campus when he learned that Virginia State Police had stopped by the family’s Annandale house to inform them that Mary had been killed.

The possibility that Mary had been one of the victims did not initially occur to Read, because the shooting had taken place in an engineering building, and his daughter had been studying elementary education. He did not realize that she had been taking a French class in Norris Hall room 211.

When Mary’s family later entered her dorm room to clean out her belongings, they found a fork and an empty container that had once held a piece of pumpkin pie.

Read recounted this story to gun violence prevention demonstrators two days before the Virginia Tech shooting’s 10th anniversary, an occasion that has brought mixed emotions for him.

“Sometimes it just seems like yesterday, and sometimes, it seems like a whole lifetime already,” Read said. “We experience grief again, and we experience sorrow, but at the same time, we celebrate the lives that Mary and others lived.”

While the main goal of this particular protest was to commemorate the Virginia Tech shooting victims, demonstrators did not lose sight of their ultimate goal: to reduce the number of people harmed by guns, including those killed by accident or who use a gun to commit suicide.

According to the Brady Campaign, 309 people in the U.S. are shot every day, with 93 people dying from gun violence daily.

Since Virginia Tech, mass shootings have occurred in at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., a church in Charleston, S.C., and a nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

A mere six days before the Virginia Tech shooting’s 10th anniversary, a man walked into North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino, Calif., on April 10 and fatally shot two adults, including his wife who worked as a teacher, and an 8-year-old child.

The issue of gun violence has become highly polarizing as politicians and observers disagree on how to solve it.

Gun violence prevention organizations like the Brady Campaign continue to advocate for increased background checks and other regulations on gun sales. A Gallup poll conducted in October 2015 founded that 86 percent of Americans are in favor of a law that would require universal background checks on all gun purchases in the U.S.

“We have gaping loopholes in our laws right now that make it so easy for anyone to get access to a weapon,” Leinz said.

For instance, most states do not require background checks for purchases made online or gun shows.

“Until we close those loopholes, we’re going to have to live with the threat of another Virginia Tech massacre, and no child, no college student should have to do that,” Leinz added, her voice getting choked up with emotion as she spoke.

At the same time, other people argue that responsible, trained gun owners should still be allowed to carry weapons not just as a constitutional right, but also in case they are in a situation where they could stop a mass shooter.

According to “The Trace,” a nonprofit news organization aimed at providing information about guns, at least 10 states have passed legislation requiring public colleges and universities to allow concealed handguns on campuses.

Several other states, including Virginia, give individual colleges and universities the authority to make that policy decision.

Laura Sonnenmark, the legislative outreach coordinator for the Brady Campaign’s Northern Virginia chapter, disputes the logic that a good person with a gun can be trusted to stop a bad person with a gun.

The Alexandria resident has been involved in the gun violence prevention movement since the 1980s, when some family friends of hers got caught up in a mass shooting at a welding shop in Miami, Fla. The shooter, a teacher named Carl Robert Brown, killed eight people and wounded three others. Among the fatal victims was Ernestine Moore, whose son owned the welding shop, and she had been reaching into a drawer for her own gun when she was killed, according to Sonnenmark.

“The lesson I learned from that [is], number one, you can have a gun to protect you,” Sonnenmark said. “It isn’t always enough.”

Still, demonstrators say that they believe progress has been made since the Virginia Tech massacre, even if it has been incremental.

Sonnenmark says that people now more readily include suicides as part of the discussions around gun violence, and some legislation seeking to regulate the sale of guns has been passed.

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting, Congress passed the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, which was aimed at streamlining and updating the federal background check system.

The bill was a bipartisan effort and even received support from the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, which said that “these bills would only enforce current prohibitions,” not expand them. The NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 became law on Jan. 8, 2008.

Meanwhile, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a law in 2016 that prohibited individuals subject to domestic violence restraining or protective orders from possessing firearms, though the governor also drew criticism from gun control advocates for agreeing to a compromise package of legislation that included protections for out-of-state gun permit holders.

Read says that the slow pace of change can be frustrating, but the memory of his daughter helps fuel his commitment to gun violence prevention.

“We have to live with hope,” Read said. “I know Mary would say don’t be afraid. Be hopeful about the future, because that’s how she was, and that’s what she would want us to do.”

The NRA did not immediately respond to the Fairfax County Times’ request for comment concerning the April 14 protest.

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