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Not going away: Virginia Tech families fight for gun control

She made a commitment a long time ago, so Lori Haas calmly stood up from her chair, put down her stack of notes and approached a table of state legislators.

“For 12 years, I’ve stood in this building and in many of these meetings pleading and pleading and pleading for laws that will save lives in the commonwealth of Virginia, laws that have been proven in other states to reduce gun violence,” Haas told the legislators. “It’s been 12 long years.”

Andrew Goddard sat behind Haas while she spoke. He put his face into the palm of his hands.

Haas and Goddard have been attending these meetings at the Virginia Capitol for a long time. A group of lawmakers sit around a table and debate guns. Haas describes how her daughter Emily survived being shot at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. Goddard tells of his son Colin’s long recovery from his wounds. For years, legislators extended their condolences to them, but they didn’t change the gun laws. Year after year, the parents watched lawmakers reject gun control bills.

“There have been families in this building for years pleading to have this issue addressed,” Haas told the legislators. “We’re not going away. We will be back, as I have been, as other families have been.”

And so they have. And their persistence is starting to pay off.

That day, the House committee tasked with considering gun-related bills defeated a batch of bills to expand gun rights.

For the first time in 26 years, the House of Delegates, Senate and executive branch are controlled by Democrats, and they promised to deliver gun control to Virginia.

The issue quickly dominated the current legislative session, with passionate meetings and speeches from legislators and a massive protest outside the Capitol that brought armed people from across the state to the streets and sidewalks of downtown Richmond.

“They’re going down kicking and biting, but they’re going down,” Haas said.

The General Assembly considered more than 100 gun bills this session, including expanding background checks, limiting handgun purchases and banning the sale of assault weapons. But coming to a consensus on bills has been challenging, especially among some Democrats.

With one week left in the legislative session, lawmakers are still hammering out the details on some.

“I’ve had very low expectations for years, and they’ve been met,” Goddard said. “I’ve been more nervous this year than in the past, because we’re finally situated the best we have ever been to get something done, and it still hasn’t been easy.”

PUSH FOR GUN RIGHTS

Andrew Goddard sat beside his son’s bed at a hospital for days after the shootings at Virginia Tech. He was pretty sure Colin was going to live, but he didn’t know how impaired he would be after being shot four times.

So he made a deal. If his son recovered well, he would do something in return so no more fathers would have to experience their children suffering in a bed at a hospital after being shot. Colin Goddard still has three bullets in his body, and he’s enduring lead poisoning.

Thirty-two people died in the massacre at Virginia Tech, shot by a mentally disturbed student who killed himself as police arrived. Seventeen more people were injured.

Forty-nine grieving families were left to figure out how to continue on. Some worked on improving school safety through technology. Some helped establish an academic and research organization at Virginia Tech centered on violence prevention. Others aimed their efforts at mental health reform. Some families wanted to hold Virginia Tech accountable for what happened that day.

Haas and Goddard decided to focus their attention on gun control, the most politically intractable issue. Goddard’s son has spoke on a national platform for gun control.

“I just could not understand why people cared so much about a piece of hardware and the inconvenience of a small segment of our population taking priority over saving lives,” Haas said. “I just found that inexplicable.”

In the years after the Virginia Tech shootings, gun rights, not restrictions, grew stronger.

A Republican sweep of statewide offices and GOP domination in the legislature became favorable to gun rights supporters at the Capitol starting in 2010.

Republicans passed a new law to allow patrons with permits to carry concealed guns into alcohol-serving businesses. Goddard was especially bothered by the legislature passing a measure to make it easier for people with mental illness to regain their right to buy and possess firearms.

“It was just a slap in the face,” Goddard said.

In 2012, then-Gov. Bob McDonnell successfully pushed the repeal of the one-handgun-a-month law that Gov. Doug Wilder, a Democrat, signed in 1993 to stem the illegal flow of firearms to the northeast by straw purchases in Virginia.

In 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, struck a deal with Republicans to recognize the right to carry concealed arms for visitors from nearly all states that issue concealed handgun permits, and Virginians with a permit should be able to carry weapons in those states.

“In the beginning, it was counting how many bills did Philip Van Cleave get,” Goddard said.

When the legislators hold meetings to debate gun bills, the front row of chairs usually have Haas, Goddard and Van Cleave, the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group more conservative than the National Rifle Association.

“We say hello and are civil, but that’s about it,” Van Cleave said about his relationship with Haas and Goddard.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said Haas and Goddard have “unique standing in the world to advocate for whatever they want” because of what their families have gone through. Gilbert has served in the past on the House committee that considers gun legislation and has been a strong advocate for gun rights.

“I don’t want their families’ experiences to diminish my ability to protect mine,” Gilbert said.

Despite year after year of defeat, Haas and Goddard kept returning. Haas joined the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence as its top legislative advocate in Virginia. Goddard became the legislative director for Virginia Center for Public Safety.

“Emotion does resonate with people, but we found early on that even the most horrific stories, of domestic violence and children being shot, didn’t move people inside this building,” Haas said. “So we realized that if we weren’t going to change their minds, we were going to change their seats.”

‘WHY I DO THIS’

Peter Read stood before a Senate committee to speak in favor of a bill to ban the sale of assault weapons.

“I beg you, I implore you, as I have for over a decade to pass this bill,” Read told the committee, which held off on the bill for a year.

Read left the room on the heels of a cheering crowd of gun rights advocates wearing “Guns Save Lives” stickers. Used to taking a loss, he’ll be back.

“She is why I do this,” Read said, pointing to a pin on his jacket containing a picture of his daughter, Mary, who was killed at Virginia Tech.

Gun control advocates are catching up to gun rights groups both in fundraising and political activism. The House and Senate flipped to Democratic control after last year’s election, which saw gun control groups outspend the NRA and Democrats campaigning on the issue of gun control after the May 31 shooting in a Virginia Beach government building that resulted in 13 deaths.

“These houses feel like they have a mandate to act, and actions they’re taking are consistent with what people wanted,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat who served as governor during the Virginia Tech shootings.

But passing gun control hasn’t been easy. It’s been a hectic session with lawmakers working on a lot of major policy proposals. A few moderate Senate Democrats who have historically protected some gun rights have been reluctant to fully commit to some of the gun control proposals, like the assault weapons ban, sought by Gov. Ralph Northam.

The measure Haas and Goddard have been chasing the longest is expanding background checks. Four months after the Virginia Tech shooting, a review panel evaluated the university and law enforcement response to the incident and provided a list of recommendations. Its only gun control suggestion was expanded background checks.

Lawmakers are still working on coming to a consensus on background checks legislation. But the House and Senate already have sent along other gun control bills to Northam, including requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms, enforcing tougher penalties for recklessly allowing a gun to fall into the hands of a child and providing local governments more authority to regulate firearms.

“When bills are signed to advance the cause of preventing gun violence, Lori, Andrew and others will get huge credit for that,” Kaine said.

Haas and Goddard said the work doesn’t stop after this session. They’ll observe implementation of the gun laws and evaluate how laws need to be changed. They’ll be back.

“People ask, ‘Isn’t this kind of work hard to do?’” Goddard said.

“No, it would be harder to see what’s happening and sit on my hands and do nothing.”

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