For Virginia Tech parents, new gun laws a long struggle
RICHMOND, Va. – When Virginia lawmakers pass sweeping new gun control laws in the coming days, it will mark the culmination of nearly 13 years of often thankless work for two parents whose children were shot in one of the country's worst mass shootings.
Lori Haas and Andrew Goddard started pressing lawmakers to enact new gun laws shortly after a gunman killed 32 people and wounded more than a dozen others at Virginia Tech in 2007. Their children were in French class together and were both shot but survived.
Haas and Goddard have been Virginia's most visible gun-control lobbyists for years, but until recently had little to show for their work. Now they are helping to shepherd through the most substantive new gun laws the state has ever passed. When a House committee recently advanced a series of gun bills that in past years had failed with little discussion, Goddard said it felt overwhelming.
“I'm actually trembling,” Goddard said. “I've never been on the winning side.”
Year after the year the pair would come to the Capitol and press lawmakers to consider tightening the state's gun laws, something the Republican majority almost always rejected.
Small moral victories were rare in a state where the Republican majority, and even some Democrats, viewed gun rights as sacrosanct. It was an accomplishment just to get a lawmaker to pay attention during a conversationor make eye contact during a committee presentation.
“You know, we measured progress differently,” Haas said.
Those days are now long gone. Haas and Goddard have lawmakers' full attention and hardly a day has gone by without some kind of gun control measure advancing in either chamber. Haas in particular has emerged as one of the most influential and persistent lobbyists on gun issues and is often at the side of top aides to Gov. Ralph Northam when lobbying lawmakers on specific bills and amendments.
“She has been, for more than a decade, relentless, respectful, tough," said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner.
Warner ran as a strong Second Amendment advocate during his successful gubernatorial run nearly two decades ago — a default position for many Democrats for a long time in Virginia. But mass shootings and a shrinking ruralbase have made Virginia Democrats more willing to embrace gun restrictions.
Democrats won full control of the state legislature last year for the first time in more than two decades, running heavily on promises to enact new gun laws. Presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg's gun-control group was one of Democrats' biggest financial backers.
Before the session ends next month, lawmakers are expected to pass several pieces of gun control legislation, including limiting handgun purchases to once a month and a red flag bill to allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from people deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others. Lawmakers are also working to finalize a bill that would require universal background checks on all gun sales, including those at gun shows— a key recommendation of a blue ribbon panel assembled soon after the shooting.
Haas and Goddard said more work remains to be done. Some moderate Senate Democrats have balked at parts of Northam's agenda, including a push to ban the sale of assault weapons like the popular AR-15-style rifles. Opposition is strong; last month, tens of thousands of gun-rights activists from around the country - some armed with military-style rifles - flooded the Capitol and surrounding area to protest. More than 100 counties, cities and towns have declared themselves so-called Second Amendment sanctuaries.
Peter Read - whose daughter, Mary, died in the shooting - traveled to the Capitol this month to try to garner support for the bill.
“I beg you, I implore you as I have for a over a decade to pass this bill,” Read told a Senate committee hearing. But the committee voted to shelve the measure for a year.
Both Haas and Goddard said the years of inaction were difficult, but the memories of the day of the shooting helped them to keep going.
Haas recalled driving at 90 mph with her husband to Virginia Tech as dozens of police cars and ambulances sped ahead of them, as reports over the radio kept raising the death toll. Haas had spoken to her daughter, Emily, and knew that she had survived. Still, Haas sobbed the entire way to Blacksburg.
“I knew I was going to pick up my child who was alive and all those other families were going to pick up dead children,” Haas said.
For Goddard it was learning from his wife's secretary that his son, Colin, had been shot and was surgery.
“Even today, that chokes me up,” Goddard said.
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