The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. students question Tim Kaine on guns: After shootings, ‘nothing happens’

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) talks with students in the library at Wakefield High School in Arlington on June 6. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
6 min

Ari Pearlstein was in elementary school the year a gunman killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. Now here he was, a high school senior, sitting before a U.S. senator weeks after another deadly school shooting, with a question that had been gnawing at him for years: “Is there anything we can do to change this?”

“What do you think we can do — we as students, and you as Democratic lawmakers — to, like, break through?” Pearlstein asked Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) during a roundtable discussion the senator held Monday at Wakefield High School in Arlington. “Because right now, for the last however many years, it feels like it’s an endless cycle of this happens, we’re all outraged, we protest … and nothing happens.”

Kaine sat at a table in front of a whiteboard surrounded by nearly two dozen Wakefield students, each wearing an orange ribbon marking National Gun Violence Awareness Month. He had been here before, four years ago, to talk about gun violence and school safety in the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in 2018 which a gunman killed 17 people. And Kaine acknowledged, less than a month since a gunman killed 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex., that “it was sad to come back” to have the same conversation.

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But, Kaine told Pearlstein and the class, “I do want to preach a message of don’t give up, because the changes made right after Parkland, they were modest, but they wouldn’t have happened if students didn’t protest,” Kaine said, referring to changes in federal law that allowed federal health authorities to research gun violence after a decades-long ban. “I would argue it’s only when students have been involved that we have any prospect of moving forward on this.”

Kaine’s message of hope contrasted with the sense of despair that many students expressed, after years of tragedies and failed congressional action. They grew up with lockdown drills and, as they got older, participated in school walkouts to protest the inaction. Just days away from graduating high school, they watched with skepticism as Congress prepared to consider gun laws once again.

“What makes you feel like this time will be any different?” one student asked Kaine.

“What kind of sacrifices would you have to make to gain Republican votes?” asked another.

“We are going to be faced with exactly that question,” Kaine said, acknowledging that proposals he favors, such as a ban on assault-style weapons or high-capacity magazines, are unlikely to garner Republican support.

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For more than an hour, Kaine took questions, sought advice and explained in detail the hurdles facing numerous gun-control provisions, the legislative history of the filibuster, and the language and limitations of the Second Amendment, among other things. The issue is personal to Kaine, who was governor when a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007.

Echoing a floor speech he gave the day after the Uvalde shooting, Kaine said he experiences a kind of PTSD after each mass shooting, bringing him back to “the worst days of my life.” And he admitted he shared some of the students’ skepticism about whether Congress will act.

“How do you hold on to hope that something could happen when it’s been 15 years and Congress has done nothing about it?” he said. “How do you hold on to hope and not just give up or despair and say it’s never going to happen? Here’s what I do: I think about Virginia.”

Virginia, home of the National Rifle Association headquarters and once a bright-red state, managed in 2020 to pass a gun-control package, which included limiting handgun purchases to one a month and a red-flag law allowing authorities to seize weapons from people found to pose an imminent danger to themselves or others. Kaine and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) have introduced a bill seeking to make Virginia’s laws go national.

Sens. Kaine and Warner want to make Virginia’s gun restrictions go national

But for now that is unlikely to gain traction in Congress, where a small group of senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), is negotiating modest proposals, such as incentivizing states to develop red-flag laws vs. creating a federal law.

“I have no guarantee we’ll be successful this time, but I do think I have a guarantee that we won’t stop — we will eventually succeed,” Kaine said. “My prayer is we’ll succeed now.”

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At one point, Kaine asked the students to raise their hands if they had ever been affected by gun violence.

A few did. One was Markel Alston, an 18-year-old senior who was crowned prom king last week.

He said he wanted Kaine and federal lawmakers to keep in mind as they considered gun-violence prevention laws the disproportionate impact that gun violence has on minority communities. Alston, who is Black, said his grandmother was fatally shot, a personal experience that shaped his view on the issue from a young age.

“While it is important to prevent it at schools, it really does heavily affect the Black community. They should keep that in mind as well while they’re fighting for children,” Alston said in an interview. “For minority communities, the schools are a safe place for us, so it’s important that we do feel safe here.”

Lately, he said, the onslaught of mass shootings has started to feel “more numbing,” leaving him feeling hopeless. One classmate, 18-year-old Anabelle Lombard, said she and her classmates had learned to “adjust” to the lockdowns, and the anxiety that a mass school shooting could happen anywhere, “which is not something we should have adjusted to as a student body.”

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As a habit, Lombard said, when she enters a room — any room, anywhere — she identifies the exit. She thinks about how she would escape. After the active-shooter drills, “we talk as a class,” she said, “because the drill — there are better options. We’re not going to stay in this room. We would climb out this window and do these other things. We’re always talking about alternative methods of escaping.”

She said she took part in a walkout protesting gun violence four years ago, in 2018, when she was a freshman. Would another make a difference? “It just feels like we’re repeating history,” she said. “We’re living the same year over and over.”