COLLINSVILLE, Va. (AP) - Andy Parker’s resolve to fight for gun control formed in the hours after his daughter was shot and killed on live television. In his first interviews after the tragedy, he briefly mentioned the issue as he eulogized Alison. By Friday, he was pledging a full-scale fight for tougher gun laws on national TV.
“This will be my mission,” he told reporters.
While his articulate Southern voice renews a push for gun restrictions, winning such measures has proved nearly impossible in the U.S., even after other high-profile tragedies garnered sympathy across the country and elicited similar pledges of activism from victim’s relatives.
And Parker is starting his battle in unforgiving territory. Gun ownership is part of the fabric of southern states like Virginia and communities like Collinsville, a town of 7,000 where the Parker family has lived for 17 years.
“I’ve got to do something going forward that makes her life meaningful and will always be with me. And this is the way to do it,” Parker told AP in an interview earlier this week.
Parker gained a strong supporter in Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a gun-owner himself, who has promised to help fight for stronger background checks for gun buyers.
“There are too many guns in America and there are clearly too many guns in the wrong hands. So we’re going to continue to do what we can,” McAuliffe said Friday during a condolence visit.
Yet it was unclear what measures would have prevented Vester Flanagan from buying the gun he used to kill reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward as they conducted a live interview Wednesday morning. With no apparent criminal record or other disqualifying incidents in his past, Flanagan passed a background check to buy his weapon.
Speaking outside the Roanoke television station where his daughter worked, Parker said he’s not against gun ownership in general, but stricter background checks are needed to keep guns away from mentally ill people. He wants to close loopholes for buying guns at gun shows. He also doesn’t see why civilians need assault weapons: “Who the hell needs a machine gun to go hunt?”
He acknowledged obstacles, ranging from a lack of political will to a desensitized public.
“Each time you think there’s a tipping point, with Sandy Hook or Aurora, and nothing gets done,” he said. Parker was referring to the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 26 children and educators and the July 2012 killing of 12 people in a packed theater in Colorado.
A push spurred in part by relatives of the Sandy Hook victims for stricter national gun control laws, including universal background checks, failed in Congress.
But the tragedy did push Connecticut lawmakers to adopt one of the strongest gun-control laws in the country.
Nicole Hockley, who lost her 6-year-old son in the shooting and is now communications director for the Sandy Hook Promise advocacy group, said Parker faces difficult choices as he considers how to fight gun violence.
“This is one of the most difficult issues in all of America. It’s one of the hardest, one of the most politically tense, and one of the most polarized out there, and it’s a long journey to make even simple changes,” she said. “I would urge him to follow his heart and decide what he wants to do whether he wants to fight for legislative change or political change or whether he wants to focus on ways to prevent violence from ever occurring. None of them are easy.”
Hockley said the defeat of gun control legislation in Congress led the group to change its strategy toward fostering a national dialogue on the issues of gun violence and mental wellness.
“We shouldn’t be waiting for our politicians to change the law. It’s not like all gun violence is going to disappear just because of a couple of laws. This is a multifaceted problem and it’s going to require many solutions.”
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Parker’s advocacy so soon after his daughter’s death “speaks volumes about his strength and his commitment to fight for reform.” The advocacy group was formed after Ronald Reagan’s press secretary James Brady was shot in an assassination attempt on the president.
Parker, 62, is not a political novice. He is a former member of the Henry County Board of Supervisors and a failed Democratic candidate for the state legislature. He said Friday he would stand up to Virginia’s legislators to demand change and issued a challenge to President Barack Obama to make a renewed push for gun control.
Despite his message, Parker, perhaps in a sign of Southern pragmatism, said he was thinking about getting a gun himself now that he was in the public eye and taking on such a controversial issue.
“I don’t own a gun. We don’t have a gun in our family. I’m probably going to have to get one,” he said.
Mark Tosh, the president of Town Police Supply in Collinsville, a gun store a mile from Parker’s home, said he believes stricter enforcement of existing laws is needed, rather than more laws. He said it’s also the responsibility of gun store employees to exercise judgment.
“If any one of our staff members doesn’t feel good about the sale … they can terminate the sale at any time,” he said.
Alison Parker’s boyfriend and WDBJ anchor Chris Hurst said he admired what Andy Parker was doing.
“Andy speaks with enough articulation and courage for many, many others,” Hurst said.
Hurst said he hadn’t decided on taking a position on gun control, partly because he’s a journalist. But he says no one should have to suffer the pain caused by the shootings.
“Every single day there are more people who were killed by gun violence. It is a horrible, unimaginable grief that you have to go through for this. I don’t want anyone else to go through that. So I will do whatever it takes to make sure that grief is lessened and love is enhanced,” he said.
Parker said he hopes that people don’t become desensitized and think: “‘Oh gosh this is another tragedy … What are we going to have for dinner tonight?’ We can’t let that happen.”
Drew reported from Collinsville. Associated Press reporters Michael Melia in Hartford, Conn.; John Raby in Roanoke, Va.; and Dan Huff in Collinsville contributed to this story.
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