- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

NARROWS, Va. (AP) — Allen Neely eases his Chrysler Pacifica onto the bridge named in honor of Jarrett Lane, who grew up in this tiny town near the West Virginia state line. Mr. Lane, Mr. Neely says quietly, always wanted to build a bridge. Under the back seat are two pistols. Mr. Neely keeps them close these days. He and his construction crew were in Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall a year ago this week when a mentally ill student went on a rampage, killing Jarrett Lane and 31 others.

Since then, Mr. Neely feels safer if his guns are within reach.

Over the past year, people here have questioned the mental health system that allowed killer Seung-hui Cho to fall through the cracks. They have questioned the university’s security procedures, the media’s glorification of violence. Fewer have questioned the state’s gun laws.

The New River divides the town of Narrows, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains about 30 miles west of Virginia Tech’s campus in Blacksburg. It is a typical Southwest Virginia town: Many residents leave their doors unlocked, everybody knows everyone else’s business, and there seem to be as many churches as people.

And this is a community of hunters. Here, guns are tools to be respected; children are taught how to handle them.

Vicki Jones sits at a table with her friends in Anna’s Restaurant, the town’s gathering spot. Like most everyone else in Narrows, she knew Mr. Lane, a 22-year-old senior majoring in civil engineering. He was high school valedictorian, athletic, funny and full of promise. More than half the town turned out for his memorial service.

Miss Jones and her friends toss around suggestions for preventing tragedies like the one at Tech: Mental health checks for prospective students and ridding TV shows of violence. They think the idea of allowing students to arm themselves for protection is crazy, but they don’t think gun control is the solution.

The thing is, Miss Jones says as she picks at her salad, there’s no simple solution to any of this.


Take a tour of Virginia a year after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. You’ll find little has changed. The state remains draped in memorial ribbons, bumper stickers and Tech flags, and the debate over firearms rages on.

Was the easy availability of guns to blame for what happened on that campus? Should the students have been allowed to carry firearms so they could have protected themselves? Did gun laws have anything to do with it at all?

In the weeks and months after the killings, there were protests and counterprotests. Legislation was drafted to tighten oversight of sales at gun shows, then quickly killed by Virginia lawmakers.

So the shows go on. On a recent weekend, an occasional flash of orange or maroon peeks through the crowd at the Richmond Raceway Complex gun show as someone in Virginia Tech attire passes through. The noisy chatter among prospective customers — middle-aged men, mothers with babies, fathers and sons — is broken occasionally by the crackle of a Taser gun demonstration.

The 88 vendors hawk everything from ultramodern Glocks to 18th-century rifles. Sherry Ramey, 37, is one of them. She is wearing a Virginia Tech sweat shirt and is a proud alum.

Mrs. Ramey was uncomfortable around guns until her husband bought her one. Now she is one of the many people who think students who are legally allowed to carry firearms should be permitted to have them in class.

“If you have a way to stop somebody,” she says, “you should use it.”

Under state law, private sellers at shows don’t have to run background checks on prospective customers. After Virginia Tech, opponents demanded that the law be changed to close what they called the gun-show loophole. Their opponents argued that Cho didn’t buy his weapons at a gun show, and lawmakers ultimately killed the legislation.

Terry Kirkpatrick leans back in his chair and watches customers pore over his antique firearms. The 65-year-old Vietnam veteran has been collecting guns since he was 12, when he found piles of broken Civil War weapons on his farm.

He is of a generation that learned how to hunt young, but that doesn’t happen so much these days, he says. Land is being lost to construction, and there are fewer places to hunt. That means fewer people today are familiar with guns — and less understanding leads to more fear.

He doesn’t think there’s much room in metropolitan areas for guns unless they are locked up. But he doesn’t believe in blanket bans on firearms.

“We’re always gonna have nuts,” he says. “We had it at Virginia Tech; we had it in Colorado.”

Nearby, Ken Burton runs his hand along an antique pistol. To him, it is a work of art. He doesn’t carry or shoot guns, but he loves the stories behind them — so much so that he moved to the United States from his native Australia to sell them. After 35 people were killed by a lone gunman in Tasmania in 1996, Australia instituted strict gun controls — an ineffective measure, Mr. Burton says.

“I think this is the best country in the world, and I think it’s one of the safest countries in the world,” he says. “And I think, well, if people have got guns, it’ll stay safe.”


The bloodstains in front of Jeanette Richardson’s two-story brick home have faded. Her anger has not.

A cold wind is blowing through this middle-class neighborhood in the eastern Virginia city of Newport News. Mrs. Richardson wipes away tears and stands where her eldest son was fatally shot by a stranger with a stolen gun.

It was New Year’s Eve, and 18-year-old Patrick, home on Christmas break from art school, was ringing in 2004 with friends at a nearby party. Mrs. Richardson and her husband were celebrating with neighbors.

She heard a lot of popping that night but dismissed the noise as fireworks — until a neighbor came running up to her, screaming.

Mrs. Richardson found her son splayed out on his back on the street. She fell to her knees and crawled to him, but when she touched his leg, it was already growing cold.

After Patrick’s death, she was outraged — furious at a system of laws she felt had done nothing to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

Mrs. Richardson didn’t feel rage like that again until April 16, 2007, when she stood in an Illinois hotel room watching the breaking news of the Virginia Tech shootings on television. She sank to the couch and wept.

She later told her friends, “Nothing’s going to change. It’s Virginia.”

She already had spent the two years since Patrick’s death lobbying for stronger gun control. Within weeks of his death, she had contacted the Brady Campaign and the Million Mom March, which was pushing to renew a ban on assault weapons. She founded a local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. She attended rallies and protests, marched and shouted, and demanded change.

After Virginia Tech, she spoke at a protest outside the Capitol in Richmond in support of closing the gun-show loophole.

She knows there’s a great chasm in Virginia and in the nation over guns. It has torn apart her own family. She hasn’t spoken to her aunt, a gun owner who vehemently disagrees with her views, in more than three years.

“It’s like civil war,” she says, clutching a damp tissue. “It’s a divider.”

On the mantle over her fireplace is a self-portrait Patrick painted just hours before he died. Upstairs, one of her surviving sons is playing a computer game and cheering loudly.

If need be, she says, he’ll push her wheelchair to protests when she’s too old to walk.


Lily Habtu works a pair of scissors through orange and maroon fabric, the tendons of her wrist moving under skin still scarred by a bullet from Cho’s gun. Around her, a dozen mothers are hunched over plastic tables in a hot, cramped art room of an Alexandria preschool, piecing together hundreds of memorial ribbons. A wall covered in children’s handprints is partly obscured by a banner advertising the group’s Web site: ProtestEasyGuns.com.

This has become an unlikely headquarters for a grass-roots gun-control contingent, the result of an idea generated by two moms standing next to a sandbox a day after the Virginia Tech shootings.

Most of these women had never been to a demonstration or thought about gun control. Now they are loud proponents of closing the so-called gun-show loophole.

Alexandria is a wealthy and largely liberal enclave, but the members of this group fall everywhere along the political spectrum, from far left to far right. Some have never been comfortable around guns; others grew up with them. They have made thousands of ribbons in the past year, worn by protesters nationwide.

Tina Gehring made so many that her hands blistered. Then she made some more.

The leader of this pack, Abby Spangler, 42, a willowy cellist and mother of two, is calling out updates: They had commitments for more than 80 “lie-ins” nationwide for the Wednesday anniversary. At each event, 32 people, the number of people killed by Cho, lay down for three minutes, the amount of time it took Cho to buy his guns. This group’s station was in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are fighting back,” she shouts. The women drop their scissors and glue guns and burst into applause.

Mrs. Spangler makes no apologies for her anger.

“You don’t kill my fellow Virginians,” she says, “and not expect us to fight back for change.”

Miss Habtu graduated last year and now lives at home with her family. She suffers from post-traumatic stress, scans unfamiliar rooms for the nearest exits, worries that another mass shooting could happen at any time. Her jaw, shattered by another bullet, never healed, and she was left with the face of a stranger.

Her cause has become her life. She fills her days drumming up support and organizing lie-ins. It would be naive to think that changing one law would stop school shootings, she says. But it is a start.


A few hours later and 20 miles to the west in equally liberal Fairfax City, Philip Van Cleave stands in front of a room of about 30 rapt listeners. On his coat is a large orange button: “Guns Save Lives.”

Mr. Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, is delivering a lecture, “Concealed Carry — Changing the Debate,” at George Mason University. In the audience are members of the College Republicans and Students for Concealed Carry.

He details the horrors of a 1991 shooting at a Texas restaurant where 23 were killed. Just like at Virginia Tech, he points out, none of the victims was armed. They died helpless and powerless.

There isn’t time to wait for police in these situations, Mr. Van Cleave says. A gun is an equalizer, a lifesaving tool. But the other side, he says, doesn’t understand that.

“Rule No. 1 for those of you that are new to this: Don’t ever, ever, ever apply logic to gun control,” he says. “Gun control is about emotion.”

Later, Mr. Van Cleave and seven friends stroll into a Fuddruckers restaurant, their guns openly displayed on their hips. Most customers look up briefly, then return to their dinners.

A few members of a college tennis team from Pittsburgh are eyeing Mr. Van Cleave’s group. Some think the guns are funny; others are unsettled. They had no idea firearms were allowed in restaurants.

“I just don’t see the need,” says Emily Himmel, 19.

The need is clear, says Mr. Van Cleave: You never know when your life will be on the line.

“To some degree, if somebody is nuts and they’re determined to kill other human beings, there’s nothing you can do to stop them,” he says. “But you can at least protect yourself.”


At the convenience store back in Narrows, cashier Jessica Perdue pauses while ringing up purchases.

“I don’t know that there is a solution,” she says finally. “People are gonna be sick, they’re gonna do things. It’s like — I don’t know.”

She trails off and stares at the counter.

Across the street at the MacArthur Inn, Allen Neely nurses a soda and watches CNN. He doesn’t really know how to move on from the tragedy, doesn’t really know how to stop another one.

“It’s gonna happen again somewhere,” he says. “I just hope I’m not there.”

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