After Va. Tech, a long struggle over gun laws


Del. Todd Gilbert, left, a Virginia Republican representing the Shenandoah Valley, thinks about a vote during a Courts of Justice Committee meeting at the Virginia State House in Richmond on Feb. 3. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

After his son Colin was shot four times in a French classroom at Virginia Tech, Andrew Goddard moved to Blacksburg to help him recover. He slept in a sleeping bag on the floor for a month and helped Colin bathe.

“I helped my son learn to walk at 11 months, and again at 21,” Goddard said.

After Colin could care for himself, Goddard, a former aid worker who set up camps for Rwandan refugees and feeding tents for Bangladeshi cyclone victims, moved back to his home in Virginia’s capital with a new mission: to persuade state legislators to tighten gun laws.

“I went into my usual mode,” said Goddard. “It’s my life pattern of troubleshooting.”

His usual pattern hasn’t worked. He’s faced down challenges from provincial Russian authorities and U.N. bureaucrats but has hit a wall in Richmond — in the shape of a 6-foot-4 former high school football player and rising Republican star named Todd Gilbert.

After the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, horror and outrage prompted lawmakers in Connecticut, Maryland, New York and a handful of other states to implement tough new gun restrictions. But since its own tragedy seven years ago at Virginia Tech, the commonwealth has gone in the other direction. Over the six full legislative sessions since Seung Hui Cho’s rampage left 32 dead, it is gun rights, not gun restrictions, that have grown stronger.

Gilbert, a former Shenandoah Valley prosecutor and the deputy majority leader in Virginia’s House of Delegates, is a big reason why.

Gilbert saw the destructive power of guns in criminal hands, and his antidote is keeping them in good hands. When he arrived in the House of Delegates the year before the Virginia Tech shooting, he started with a bill that would have allowed students 21 or older with a permit to bring concealed handguns to class.

It failed. But Gilbert and his allies have had a series of wins in the years since: They dropped the state’s one-gun-a-month limit on purchasing handguns. They allowed concealed firearms in bars and restaurants, and guns in glove boxes.

“All the members of this place try to oversimplify everything all the time. I know it’s a complicated issue,” Gilbert said. “But I’ve just never seen how disarming law-abiding people made anybody safer.”

‘The Killing Field’

On a recent afternoon, Goddard and Gilbert walked into a crowded conference room on the fourth floor of the General Assembly building. Gun-control advocates call this panel “the Killing Field,” but its official name is Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Militia Police and Public Safety Committee.

Gilbert had to tell one gun enthusiast wearing a blue colonial jacket, white scarf and black tricorn hat to stop punctuating the proceeding with a clanging bell. Goddard sat in the audience not far from ideological foes wearing fluorescent orange “GUNS Save Lives” stickers. The chairman of the full committee, Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), kicked off consideration of one House bill with an artillery joke.

“This is HB 100. It makes possession of howitzers legal,” Lingamfelter said, drawing big laughs from the largely pro-gun crowd before turning around to smile at Goddard and others in the audience. “Woke you up, didn’t I?”

Among the bills was one to remove the easier, online method for people seeking concealed handgun permits to prove they have “demonstrated competence with a handgun.”

Goddard, the president of a volunteer group called the Virginia Center for Public Safety, rose and invoked the spare staccato style born of having to make points swiftly, session after session.

“I think I’ve said this every year since I’ve been here,” Goddard began. “I got a permit. I shouldn’t have a permit. I’ve never held a handgun. I should have had training. I went online and answered some questions that I could have answered if I hadn’t watched the silly little movie in advance. I shouldn’t be allowed to have a permit to carry a handgun in public until I know how to handle it and know about the laws.”

Others spoke up. Then Gilbert, with a cadence and confidence honed in the courtroom, said he was “offended” at the very notion of the proposal.

“While this is couched as a reasonable extension of public policy, it really just nibbles away at that basic proposition that we shouldn’t have to go get the government’s permission to go protect ourselves and our families as we see fit,” Gilbert said. “Free citizens, acting as Mr. Goddard does, will choose to carry a firearm or not carry a firearm. Criminals will choose to do it or not do it — without regard for any of these laws.”

The five-member subcommittee is stacked with four gun-rights advocates, and the proceedings move with a brutal efficiency. Within a couple minutes, using the polite language for killing a bill, the legislators voted 4 to 1 to “lay the bill on the table.”

Then it was on to the next one.

A wicked wit

In recent weeks, backers of tighter rules have pushed bills to plug broad exceptions — including those related to purchases arranged online — that allow many people to buy firearms without background checks. Other bills would let localities ban concealed weapons in libraries and ban magazines that hold more than 20 rounds.

They had no chance. But what Goddard does is show up.

He is slight and sometimes haggard but fast on his feet, and he has the air of a professor perpetually scrambling to prepare for class. Trained as a mechanical engineer, he carries a color-coded binder to help him track bills: green tabs for the good bills and red for the bad ones.

A wicked wit has helped sustain the 60-year-old through the sessions. He calls the heavy-duty assault rifles and high-capacity magazines carried as part of an annual lobbying push by gun-rights advocates “just the sort of thing you need to have for home defense, as long as you’re being attacked by Morocco.”

At a recent morning hearing, waiting for his time to speak, he pulled up an online marketplace called Armslist.com, fingering through weapons available for sale nearby. Available at that moment: 126 rifles, 119 pistols, 40 shotguns and 26 revolvers.

“This is a gun show in your own hands. Just make a phone call, arrange to meet, no questions,” Goddard said.

Goddard listened to the grieving relative of a state trooper, struck and killed on duty, give a halting appeal for tougher reckless driving penalties.

He knows that need to speak.

His son, Colin, had placed a 911 call before Cho entered the French classroom and methodically executed his victims. Goddard allowed himself to listen to the terror and violence captured on a police recording of that call. He thought it was a good idea at the time, though now he’s not so sure.

A copper-jacketed hollow point broke his son’s left femur. One shot went in his armpit and out his shoulder, and another lodged behind his left knee. A forth bullet smashed into Colin’s pelvic bone just above the hip joint. He was lucky, Goddard said, because he didn’t get hit in the head.

“I can’t sit around and not do something,” Goddard said. “I’m going to come down here every year until we get background checks.”

An unbending defender

C. Todd Gilbert was born in Newton, Tex., and grew up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the son of a chicken processing plant manager. He recalled that nearly every high school classmate with a pickup truck kept a rifle hanging on the gun rack — and none of them committed mass shootings.

Gilbert, now 43, wasn’t in the hunting crowd then; he spent his free time playing football, basketball and tennis. But during law school at Southern Methodist University, he bought his first gun: a Remington Model 870 pump-action shotgun. He loved shooting with friends, kept guns for protection during his 14 years as an assistant prosecutor and found gun rights to be a natural plank of his small-government philosophy.

But it was a gun mishap in 2006 that elevated the stakes in his own life and helped cement his role as an unbending gun-rights defender.

Another delegate accidentally fired a single shot as he released the clip from his .380 handgun in his seventh-floor legislative office. He hit a bulletproof vest hanging on the back of his door, and no one was hurt.

His timing was terrible — and maybe divine.

Gilbert knew he had a political problem. An errant bullet from a supposedly responsible gun owner sullied the narrative he was building for his bill rolling back campus limits on carrying firearms.

A TV reporter from Roanoke, Jennifer Wishon, thought the incident made a nice peg for a story on Gilbert’s bill. As Gilbert approached her for the interview, she recalls hearing a voice she hadn’t heard before and hasn’t heard since, with an unexpected message: “You’re going to marry him.”

Gilbert’s bill died. But he met the woman who would become his wife.

They disagreed about whether to keep guns in their future home. Then her townhouse was ransacked by a burglar who dripped blood on the floor.

Now, Wishon — the White House correspondent for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, who lives part time in a Pentagon City apartment — sleeps with a loaded gun next to her bed.

Gilbert helped train her how to use it, starting with an admonition to stop resting her finger on the trigger. They talk through which guns are stashed where, and she practices picking them up quickly in case of an intruder.

“Your safety is not the police’s responsibility. It’s not the sheriff’s responsibility. It’s yours,” Gilbert said.

When his campus gun bill failed a year before the Virginia Tech massacre, Gilbert recalled that a university spokesman “said he was pleased that the visitors, faculty and students at Virginia Tech would now feel safer with the defeat of that bill.”

Gilbert said he is not making the argument that armed students and others would have been able to stop Cho.

But “the notion that we can create gun-free zones that are magically safe bubbles is just untrue, and we have way too many examples of how that’s untrue,” he said. “I’m sure they felt safer. But they weren’t safer as it turned out.”

Gilbert, who has a red throw-rug made to look like the National Rifle Association logo on his office floor, also opposes expanded background checks. He says their ultimate purpose is to prevent private individuals from being able to sell their guns or give them as Christmas presents.

He supported bills this year to allow people to take their guns to private and religious schools — as well as airport ticket counters. They stalled in the House.

Wishon, a Virginia Tech grad, said people may make assumptions about her husband because he’s a big guy who’s passionate about his beliefs.

“He’s not a conservative, gun-toting ogre,” Wishon said. “He certainly has compassion for the people like the Goddards, and other people. We all lived through the Virginia Tech shootings. But he just thinks they’re wrong.”

Stalemate

Parents of some of those who perished became heavily involved in mental health and campus safety issues after Virginia Tech.

Goddard chose guns. The trauma of seeing his wounded son remains, but so does awe at his sheer good fortune. “I had a kid to look at.”

Colin has followed him into advocacy, moving to the District to push for stronger federal statutes at Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He has a titanium rod the full length of his femur, but no limp. Last week, he got engaged.

“It shook him – and it changed the trajectory of his life,” Colin said of his father. “I’m proud as hell of him.”

Andrew Goddard’s ambitions in Richmond have been clipped.

“We measure our success by how slowly we’re pushed backward,” Goddard said. “I’m no longer trying to stop a Virginia Tech. I’m trying to stop the wholesale destruction of our laws.”

Gilbert and Goddard agree on little. But given Republican control of the House, an evenly divided Senate and a Democratic governor, both sides see the issue at a stalemate.

Elections have consequences, Gilbert said. And, he said, so do mass shootings.

“Whenever there’s a tragedy, we know folks will always resort to emotion and emotional arguments to try to win that debate,” Gilbert said. “Even though we may have made some progress, we feel like we’re ever on the defensive, especially in a culture where tragedies are going to continue to happen.”

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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