A Commonwealth Times town-hall-style panel on gun violence Friday may not have produced much in terms of compromise, but the tone of the discussion left panelists and observers alike walking away with a sense of optimism.
The forum was an opportunity for students and faculty to discuss the root causes of mass shootings, why the United States is uniquely prone to them and policy solutions.
The event occurred days after the nationwide school walkout organized by youth activists in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting which killed 17 in Florida a month earlier.
“The last month has underscored the notion that young people have a voice when it comes to issues which affect their future,” said Allison Bennett Dyche, director of the VCU Student Media Center. “Their voices matter in this conversation.”
The discussion, which was moderated by CT managing editor Fadel Allassan, brought four panelists to the Academic Learning Commons, among them John Aughenbaugh, a professor in the Political Science Department who teaches constitutional law and public policy courses.
Lori Haas, state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, who lobbies at the Virginia General Assembly and Capitol Hill for responsible gun laws.
Jessica Smith, a doctoral candidate in the Wilder School and former Public Safety Initiatives Coordinator at the Attorney General’s Office and School, Campus, and Public Safety Resource Specialist at the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety.
Lastly, Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a non-partisan, grassroots organization working to advance the right of Virginians to keep and bear arms.
The panelists addressed gun culture in the country, its relationship with American ideals and its existence as a privilege that may be regulated.
“It is part of the culture where I grew up, it is part of my identity. I have hunted for most of my life,” Aughenbaugh said. “But like with operating an automobile or many other privileges or liberties afforded by government or in our Constitution, what was part and parcel of my culture where I grew up was you had to learn how to use the weapon and use it responsibly.”
The forum confronted policy discussions happening across the country, dealing with universal background checks, raising the purchasing age, arming teachers and banning assault weapons.
The panelists disagreed with mental health screenings as a solution. All except Van Cleave supported allowing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence as a public health issue. Van Cleave cited issues with bias in gun violence research.
Haas promoted, and Smith echoed, support for extreme risk laws, or gun violence restraining orders that California, Washington and Oregon have implemented — which allow household members to petition a court to remove a person’s access to guns.
Compromise, patience and a clear goal can promote a mutual understanding and progress towards decreasing gun violence, Smith said.
“From a policy perspective, it’s remembering we are a system based on incrementalism and for both sides to expect that,” Smith said. “And to recognize on both sides, ‘hey if we’re passing a regulation it doesn’t mean the governments taking everyone’s gun’. On the other side, if we do pass a regulation it doesn’t mean all gun violence is going to stop overnight.”
Allassan said the forum included important voices and was productive in answering questions to the national debate.
“Every individual has the ability to be an agent of change,” Allassan said. “But the conversation won’t move forward at the individual level. We need to come together and start a dialogue. That’s what this panel attempted to address.”
SaraRose Martin, News Editor