By Lori Haas
“Hi Mommy, I’ve been shot.”
Those were the words I heard 13 years ago today when I picked up the phone. I was speechless. My daughter was supposed to be safe in her French class at Virginia Tech. She was supposed to be learning. Instead, she’d been shot twice. I was panicked. I was frantic. I was desperate to get to her.
That phone call was a life-altering moment. As my husband and I sped from Richmond to Blacksburg to be with our daughter, we heard more about the horrific tragedy. Thirty-two people killed by a single gunman — at the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
We were lucky. Our daughter survived her injuries. We grieved for the 32 other families whose loved ones were so senselessly killed in a space where they should have been safe.
As my family picked up the pieces and started to figure out how to move forward, I knew my life would never be the same. As I worked through grief, pain, and anger, I realized something had to change in Virginia — and I was going to try to change it.
I began showing up to the Virginia General Assembly that following January along with Andrew Goddard — another Virginia Tech parent whose son was wounded. We originally thought that just by sharing our stories, we could convince our legislators to pass a package of stronger gun violence prevention laws. We learned quickly that the process would be much more difficult than that.
Roaming the halls of the General Assembly in January and February 2008, we were avoided by members of both parties. The power and influence of the National Rifle Association in its home state were perceived to be impenetrable. Even after 32 people were killed at Virginia Tech, legislators were unable to summon the political courage to do the right thing.
The public was a different story. Virginians across the commonwealth felt connected to the Virginia Tech community and were appalled and heartbroken by the tragedy.
They, like me, were moved to action. People became activists, founding gun violence prevention community groups in localities across the commonwealth. They showed up to our annual lobby day to make their voices heard. At the grassroots level, new political power was taking hold. The cultural and political influence of the NRA and other pro-gun groups was starting to weaken.
Over the next decade, we kept coming back, watching popular commonsense proposals killed in small subcommittee rooms by Republicans who rejected the public’s cries and stood by a corrupt and weakened gun lobby. We knew that in order to achieve our goals, we would have to change the legislators in Richmond.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.