A tense debate over guns in Virginia Beach, still reeling from a mass shooting

Michael E Miller

VIRGINIA BEACH, VIRGINIA (THE WASHINGTON POST) – The gun owners crowded into the Freedom Shooting Centre meeting room on a Friday night until it was jammed with 200 men and women wearing hunting camo, “tyranny” T-shirts and Trump gear.

They traded warnings about a raft of new gun control bills being considered by the Virginia General Assembly and made plans to join thousands of gun rights activists for a massive rally in Virginia’s capital.

“It’s worse now,” Robert Mentzer, 62, told a young man in a backwards baseball cap who was complaining about one of the gun control measures introduced days earlier in Richmond, Virginia. “It has more punch to it. It was an assault weapon ban. Now it’s assault weapons plus others.”

Both men wore bright orange stickers saying “Guns Save Lives.” But the newly elected Democrats who control the state legislature for the first time in a quarter-century didn’t seem to agree.

In the wake of the November election, gun rights advocates began flooding city and county hearings across the state to demand they declare themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.”

Nowhere has the state’s sudden and intense gun control debate been more fraught than in Virginia Beach. Less than eight months after engineer DeWayne Craddock opened fire on his co-workers in a municipal building, the state’s largest city is still struggling to recover.

Elaine West-Watson (L) is comforted as she visits a makeshift memorial near the Virginia Beach, Virginia, municipal centre days after the mass shooting. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
A ‘Guns Save Lives’ sticker and Virginia Citizens Defense League literature
A woman shoots at the Freedom Shooting Centre gun range in Virginia Beach

“VBStrong” stickers have given way to dueling pro- and anti-gun control signs. Campaign ads mentioning the tragedy have angered some victims’ families. And even survivors of the shooting have been drawn into the tense political debate.

“We don’t even have a scar yet,” city councilman Aaron Rouse said of the city’s wound. “It’s still very fresh.”

Rouse opposed a resolution declaring Virginia Beach’s support for the Second Amendment because he felt it was too soon to raise such a divisive issue. After an estimated 1,500 gun rights advocates overwhelmed three recent hearings in support of the resolution, however, the controversial measure narrowly passed, upsetting local gun control advocates.

“It’s really disheartening and disrespectful to the families of the victims that our city council would vote on this less than a year from the mass shooting,” said Sibel Galindez from the local chapter of Moms Demand Action. “Often the gun rights crowd talks about not politicising a mass shooting. Well my goodness, what a slap in the face.”

But if the shooting has become a rallying cry for those seeking stricter gun laws, then so, too, has it energised the opposition.

“Fear,” Mentzer said when asked to describe his emotions. “That they are going to be taking our guns away.”

President Donald Trump echoed those sentiments on Friday, tweeting: “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away. Republicans will win Virginia in 2020. Thank you Dems!”

At the meeting an hour later, which was organised by the ardent gun rights organisation Virginia Citizens Defense League, many cited Craddock’s rampage as proof that gun laws need to be relaxed rather than strengthened.

“If someone had been armed, like the lady that wanted to carry her gun, then they might have been able to stop something from happening,” Mentzer said, referencing how one of the victims had wanted to bring her handgun to work the day before the shooting but had been prevented by a city policy against employees carrying weapons.