Gun control talk highlights laws, sparks debate

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When it comes to gun violence, Virginia "is a bellwether state; it is a microcosm of the United States," said gun control activist Andrew Patrick during his Jan. 13 presentation, "Stopping Gun Violence in America: It's Up to Us," at St. Mark Church in Vienna.

Given the contentious question-and-answer session following the event, the audience appeared to be a microcosm of the commonwealth, which began the 2016 legislative session with around 70 weapon-related bills reflecting polarized views on the topic.

Contributing to the state's bellwether status are several high-profile acts of gun violence, including the August shooting of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward and the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in Blacksburg, as well as the state's proximity to the nation's capital and the fact that it's the home of the National Rifle Association's headquarters.

Patrick, a Virginians for Responsible Gun Laws organizer and a communications officer for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, was invited to speak by the St. Mark Peace and Justice Committee. The evening event drew nearly 60 people - a mix of parishioners and community activists.

Patrick shared statistics on gun-related crime, offered reasons behind the numbers and highlighted legislation intended to reduce gun violence. He also assessed gun control laws in Virginia and the movement in the United States.

The presentation was timely in light of President Barack Obama's speech on gun control Jan. 5, during which he introduced a group of executive actions.

"Gun violence is becoming a mainstream issue, and Americans are joining the cause," said Patrick. "How much heartbreak do we need to take before we enact real change to prevent these high-profile issues from occurring, as well as the day-to-day shootings that occur all around us?"

More than 33,000 people are killed in America every year by a gun, he said. Two-thirds of the deaths are suicides.

"When you attempt suicide with a firearm, the effects are a 90 percent success rate," said Patrick. With other methods, there's an average suicide success rate of about 5 to 7 percent. The majority of people who survive suicide do not make a second attempt, he said. "But when there's easy access to a firearm, they do not get that second chance."

Looking at how gun violence affects children, Patrick pointed out that more children than police officers die by gunfire each year, with 48 children and teens shot daily in the United States.

After emphasizing that his organizations "are not anti-gun," Patrick attributed the high rate of gun violence to the fact that Americans have easy access to guns.

Echoing the president's recent words, Patrick said the problem is that "we've seen Second Amendment rights encroach on other rights."

"The Second Amendment is very important, but it is not the only right we possess as Americans. What about the right to life? … What about the right to worship peacefully?"

Patrick said many people think gun laws are stronger than they actual are. Nationally, there is the "Brady bill," requiring background checks to be performed by federally licensed firearm dealers on all gun sales.

"The flaw in this is what has become known as the 'gun show loophole,' where sellers go to a gun show and they are exempt," said Patrick.

The Virginia Catholic Conference, the public policy agency of the commonwealth's Catholic bishops and their two dioceses, supports legislation to close Virginia's gun show loophole.

Patrick discussed the importance of the "permit-to-purchase" law, which says that in order to buy a gun you must obtain a permit requiring a background check and in-person basic safety training.

He also summarized a new law championed by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, an affiliate of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Called the "Gun Violence Restraining Order" (GVRO), Patrick said it gives law enforcement and family members "a tool for temporarily disarming a loved one who is in crisis."

Turning to Virginia, he said the state does not have universal background checks, permit-to-purchase laws or GVRO. It is an open carry state, meaning you can carry a firearm openly on the street and in some businesses. If a person is convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor in Virginia, he or she still is able to own and purchase a gun. And domestic violence felony cases often are pleaded down to misdemeanors, said Patrick. While federal law is supposed to cover such cases, there are not sufficient resources to address all of them.

Patrick said some believe the gun control movement is failing because the U.S. Senate did not pass legislation for universal background checks in the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead. But Newtown was not a finalization "but a catalyst," he said. "More and more people are getting involved, but it's not going to be easy."

That sentiment was reflected in the night's question-and-answer session.

One audience member said that "gun control feels good, but it's not effective"; another expressed concerns over the anti-NRA rhetoric.

St. Mark parishioner Joe Daly said he was disappointed in the speech. He said background checks are not what will stop violent offenders, but rather a resurgence of family values.

Echoing Daly's disappointment but from a different perspective, Bob More, a parishioner of St. John Neumann Church in Reston and member of the diocesan Peace and Justice Commission, said he'd like to see a more faith-based perspective. "I wanted to learn about it in the context of the church's respect for life and human dignity and how that can guide policies," he said, adding that he did appreciate the talk's factual content.

Mary Purdy, a St. Mark parishioner and member of the parish Peace and Justice Committee, said she was frustrated that gun control discussions "often devolve into something else."

Nevertheless, Purdy said, the topic "is extremely necessary to address by the Catholic Church as a life issue."

Find out more

To learn more about Virginians for Responsible Gun Laws, go to vrgl.org; for more on the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, go to csgv.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016