In April, honor memories and seek reforms, by Thomas P. Kapsidelis

4/11/2024, 6 p.m.
Spring ought to be a time of relief and promise. The days are longer and seemingly a bit sunnier, and ...

Spring ought to be a time of relief and promise. The days are longer and seemingly a bit sunnier, and the end of the school year is around the corner — and with it, the hopes of graduation days ahead.

But in many communities across Virginia and the nation, the season and the month of April are forever shaped by the nation’s unrelenting problem of gun violence, a crisis with no boundaries — urban or rural, young or old, rich or poor.

How many times have we asked, “how can it happen here?”

It was the question asked on the morning of April 16, 2007, after a senior at Virginia Tech fatally shot 32 students and professors, and asked repeatedly since — including less than a year ago in Richmond, when a Huguenot High School graduate and his stepfather were killed by gunfire in Monroe Park after leaving the graduationceremony at the Altria Theater.

Beyond the sorrow of families and a broad network of friends, neighbors, teachers and school staff, testimony at the trial of Amari Pollard, who pleaded guilty in the June 6 death of Shawn Jackson, 18, presented the chilling reality of the young people and adults armed on a day that ought to have been filled with celebration and joy.

Questions remain over who could face trial in Renzo Smith’s death — prosecutors dropped an earlier charge against Mr. Pollard — and a recent move by Mr. Pollard’s lawyer to have his client’s plea withdrawn.

As the parent of two Richmond Public School graduates, I remember graduation day of 2006, filing out of the darkened auditorium and stepping into the bright sunlight and green space of Monroe Park. On my desk I keep a favorite picture of our son in a classic cap-and-gown pose with his older sister outside the theater that day.

Less than a year later, the shootings at Virginia Tech stole any sense of safety we harbored.

Seventeen years after the deaths of those bright and worldly scholars — 27 students and five professors who chose the tranquility of southwest Virginia to pursue their dreams — the lifetime work of healing and seeking peace continues for those who survived. Survivors and supporters of the 2007 Tech community were leaders in the

passage of landmark gun safety legislation at the Virginia Capitol in 2020 and have created networks to help survivors across the nation. Countless others have persevered outside the public eye and deserve our thoughts and respect as well on April 16, and throughout the year.

For shooting survivors, there are difficult memories throughout the month. April 20 is the 25th anniversary of the attack at Columbine High School. On April 12, 2013, two people were shot and injured just minutes from Virginia Tech at New River Community College.

How do we think about these tragedies years later? How do we ensure that our memories, actions and words don’t wither like the flowers left at memorials? These challenges are intensified during a time of such profound suffering the world over.

We can start by recognizing that our votes count, especially in a presidential election year when an abundance of critical issues, gun safety initiatives among them, hang in the balance. Gun violence has become the leading cause of death for children and teens, and demands a national focus. How can it happen here?

How is it that firearms can be readily accessible to young people and others who shouldn’t ever be near a weapon?

Change comes slowly in a country with so much division, so many opinions and so many guns.

At the same time, it seems we can act quickly — and appropriately — on transportation, medical and food dangers. A colleague recently told me that when it comes to gun safety, we want a sprint but are faced with a marathon. The same can be said for those facing a lifetime of healing.

In an era of world turmoil, we can’t lose sight of working for peace at home. April can be a month to honor memories and reclaim hope.

The writer is the author of “After Virginia Tech: Guns, Safety, and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings.” (For information on Virginia Tech memorial observances and events, visit https://www.weremember.vt.edu/)