The beautiful spring weather on Sunday belied the sense of tragedy that was weighing down the hearts of 32 mothers who arrived at noon in Market Square. Dressed in black, each bore a maroon and orange sash — the colors of Virginia Tech, where America’s deadliest shooting rampage last week claimed 32 lives. One by one, they took their place on the bricks. Shoulder to shoulder on the ground, the women staged what organizers called a "die in" civil protest in an effort to draw attention to the availability of guns in Virginia.
"We implore our elected leaders to take a hard look at how we can combine elements of training, education and background checks so that it takes longer than a few minutes to buy a gun," said Abigail Spangler, who organized the event. "The goal is to increase public discourse on gun laws — to discuss and explore what must be done in order to protect our children and the citizens of this country."
Market Square was full of discourse on Sunday, as the mother’s expressed outrage and a desire to translate their feelings into policy changes that would decrease the availability of guns. Although the group didn’t make any specific policy recommendations, the overwhelming feeling among participants was that state and federal laws need to change.
"We’re all outraged by what happened and how easy it is to get a gun," Tina Gehring, mother of a Virginia Tech junior, who helped organize the event. "While we were laying there, I heard a 5-year-old say ‘Wow, that’s a lot of people.’ That’s when it hit me how powerful this event was."
Gehring said she found out about the shootings when she received a telephone call from her daughter, Geneva, a Biology major at Virginia Tech. The daughter explained that a series of shootings happened and that she was in lockdown at her sorority house. After they hung up, the mother admitted, she began fearing that the gunman had broken into the sorority house. She said that the shock of the event transcended personal relationships with the victims.
"My daughter didn’t know any of the victims, but she felt like she knew them all," said Gehring. "That’s the kind of spirit that Virginia Tech has — it’s really a large family whose heart has been broken."
DEBATES OVER GUN control frequently follow mass shootings. Yet because the violence in Blacksburg holds the distinction of being the deadliest shooting rampage in American history, the renewed debate over the availability of guns has an emotionally charged pitch. In Market Square, the mothers who staged the "die in" repeated their outrage to anyone who would listen.
"I have two dogs and I had to go through more to bring my dogs home from the pound than I would have to do to get a gun," said Kathleen Jordan, a Del Ray resident. "That’s ridiculous."
According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, in Virginia there are no background checks are required at gun shows; gun owners are not required to register their firearms; cities don’t have authority to hold gun makers legally liable; permits are not required to purchase handguns; no restrictions exist on the sale or possession of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons; gun dealers are not required to sell guns with child-safety locks; handgun buyers are not required to receive safety training; and no waiting period is mandated beyond the "instant check" in federal law.
"If you have a waiting period and nothing happens during the waiting period, it won’t do much good," said Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-30), who attended the "die in" to support the movement for tighter gun-control laws. "On the other hand, I think that people should have to prove why they need a gun before they are allowed to walk out of a store with one."
Ticer said that she would also support an effort to require gun owners to register their firearms. Without a statewide database, she said, police officials do not know how many guns are in the state or where they are. Furthermore, she said, the lack of registration data makes it more difficult for police to trace guns used in crime, identify illegal gun traffickers or hold gun owners accountable for their weapons. In the case of the Virginia Tech shooter, Ticer said that a registration system might have been able to connect the dots and prevent the 23-year-old from purchasing two handguns with little fanfare.
"People in Virginia assume that someone is keeping good records and merging all the information into a database," she said. "But it doesn’t necessarily work that way."
AFTER THE "DIE IN," participants mingled with spectators and reporters in Market Square. The mothers each expressed a strong desire to form some kind of meaningful reform in the wake of senseless tragedy. United by motherhood, the women expressed disappointment that previous shooting rampages didn’t goad lawmakers into action.
"When you are a mother, it’s so hard to see something like this happen," said Megan Beyer. "After Columbine, I was sure that there would be so many changes. Yet nothing happened."
Several onlookers had their own opinions. Kathryn Dickinson, a resident of Cambridge, England who was in Alexandria on holiday, was walking down King Street when she realized that something was happening in Market Square. She watched the 32 mothers engage in the protest with a measure of satisfaction.
"Everyone in Europe thinks that all Americans are gun crazy," said Dickinson. "But this shows that there are a lot of Americans who are not."
Dickinson said that getting a handgun in England is almost impossible, and even getting a shotgun requires the purchaser to prove that they need it.
"Why would anyone want a handgun anyway?" she asked. "The only purpose is to kill someone."