Send­ing the wrong mes­sage on gun con­trol

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

It’s a month be­fore the Novem­ber elec­tion, and I’m sit­ting pretty. Un­op­posed in my bid for the Al­leghany County Board of Su­per­vi­sors, I have noth­ing to prove but my ba­sic com­pe­tence and will­ing­ness to serve the cit­i­zens of my small west­ern Vir­ginia town. Then I got the let­ter. The “Dear Can­di­date” let­ter. Mailed to 300 can­di­dates for lo­cal of­fice in Vir­ginia, the let­ter and ac­com­pa­ny­ing sur­vey came from the Vir­ginia Cit­i­zens De­fense League, a gun rights group whose slo­gan is “De­fend­ing Your Right to De­fend Your­self ” and that sells a bumper sticker pro­claim­ing “Guns Save Lives.”

The group’s rea­son for be­ing was clear early in the let­ter: “We be­lieve the Right to Keep and Bear Arms is our most pre­cious con­sti­tu­tional free­dom, as it serves as the means to pro­tect all our other free­doms from in­fringe­ment. Yet al­most daily, this cher­ished right is un­der as­sault by var­i­ous en­ti­ties of the gov­ern­ment.”

(As a re­tired English teacher, I won­dered whether the ironic hu­mor of claim­ing an “as­sault” on the right to carry guns was in­ten­tional.)

I set the let­ter and sur­vey aside and went back to sign­ing my can­di­date in­tro­duc­tion letters, which I am dis­tribut­ing through­out my dis­trict as I visit each house to lis­ten to con­cerns.

But some­thing drew me back to the VCDL let­ter and sur­vey. The fi­nal para­graph left me speech­less: “If you choose not to re­turn the sur­vey, you will not be con­sid­ered for an en­dorse­ment by the VCDL-PAC and your fail­ure to re­turn the sur­vey may be in­ter­preted by our mem­bers, sup­port­ers, and other gun own­ers through­out the Com­mon­wealth as in­dif­fer­ence, if not out­right hos­til­ity, to­ward the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.”

In­dif­fer­ence? Out­right hos­til­ity? Be­cause I won’t show the VCDL my hand on guns? Isn’t that in­sin­u­a­tion “out­right hos­til­ity”?

I called the VCDL head­quar­ters and hit pay dirt: Pres­i­dent Philip Van Cleave an­swered the phone. He seemed sur­prised that I had not heard of his group, or of him.

I read him the last para­graph of the let­ter sent out by his PAC and told him, “It’s rather threat­en­ing to be told that if I don’t re­turn an un­so­licited sur­vey, I’ll be deemed ‘hos­tile’ by a gun rights group.”

“And ac­tu­ally, we use the word may, not will,” he said, “So it’s not re­ally a threat, is it?”

I asked how many can­di­dates re­turn the form. “I re­ally don’t know,” he asaid. “I’ll tell you that the can­di­dates who hate guns never re­turn their sur­veys. They are hos­tile, by and large,” he con­tin­ued.

“Or maybe they have other things on their minds than guns,” I noted.

He in­sisted that his group’s en­dorse­ment car­ries weight, with 28,000 peo­ple on an email list about gun rights. “Here are the facts,” he said. “There are now about 500,000 per­mit hold­ers in Vir­ginia, most of them con­cealed-carry . . . . Vir­ginia now has to give a con­cealed-carry per­mit to any­one who’s not a con­victed felon. Peo­ple with con­cealed­carry per­mits are all law-abid­ing, good peo­ple. The cream of the crop.” The cream of the crop. Law-abid­ing, good peo­ple. Two years ago, one of my for­mer stu­dents was mur­dered on live tele­vi­sion by a man who’d suc­cess­fully ap­plied for a con­cealed-carry per­mit. Adam Ward was a pho­to­jour­nal­ist for WDBJ-TV, the Roanoke CBS af­fil­i­ate, and his fa­ther was one of my co-work­ers. Ward was one of the fun­ni­est stu­dents I taught, and his take on the world as we slogged through “The Scar­let Let­ter” and Hem­ing­way never failed to make me smile.

Early in the morn­ing of Aug. 26, 2015, Vester Lee Flana­gan II opened fire on Ward and re­porter Ali­son Parker, killing both. Flana­gan had a con­cealed-carry per­mit for the Glock 9mm mur­der weapon. Flana­gan later con­fessed and died of a self-in­flicted gun­shot wound.

Sev­eral days later, Parker’s fa­ther, who was run­ning for a po­si­tion on the Henry County Board of Su­per­vi­sors, with­drew from that race to de­vote him­self to gun con­trol. “I lost my daugh­ter. And I’m not go­ing to lose this fight,” he said. “We just want to keep guns out of the hands of crazy peo­ple.”

And now, Stephen Pad­dock. At least 23 guns that were ap­par­ently legally ob­tained in his ho­tel room; 19 oth­ers in his house. Al­most 60 peo­ple slaugh­tered in Las Ve­gas; nearly 500 oth­ers were wounded.

Guns in the hands of crazy peo­ple. Whom do we trust, in this time of guns and votes?

“Are you go­ing to fill out your can­di­date sur­vey?” Van Cleave asked me.

Yes, I am. Can­di­dates across the United States should re­spond to gun-rights groups’ re­quests for their stand on con­cealed weapons. Un­less we stand up and say no to pow­er­ful gun lob­bies press­ing for more guns in more hands, then what hap­pened in Las Ve­gas and to Adam Ward and Ali­son Parker in Vir­ginia will hap­pen again and again.

Be­cause all pol­i­tics — and all gun vi­o­lence — is lo­cal.

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