The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our dysfunctional relationship with guns rears its ugly head in Virginia

Flowers and notes line a walkway at Scott Stadium on Tuesday in Charlottesville after the fatal shootings of three University of Virginia football players on Sunday. (Steve Helber/AP)
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“ACTIVE ATTACKER . . . RUN HIDE FIGHT.” That alert from University of Virginia police came at 10:42 p.m. on Sunday, sending the campus into a terrified lockdown. Students huddled overnight in libraries and academic buildings; they barricaded themselves in their apartments and dorm rooms, hiding in closets and pushing furniture against doors. After 12 hours of fear and worry — and after three students were killed and two others wounded — police arrested the suspected gunman, and another community irrevocably shaken by gun violence is asking why.

Murdered Sunday night as they returned from a field trip were Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry, all juniors and members of the school’s football team. “These were incredible young men with huge aspirations and extremely bright futures,” said the university’s first-year coach, Tony Elliott, in a statement. “My heart is broken for the victims and their families,” U-Va. President James E. Ryan said, his voice cracking.

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According to authorities, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., a former member of the football team, opened fire on a charter bus that had pulled into a university parking garage, full of students returning from a field trip to Washington. The father of one of the wounded young men said that the students were in a drama class that had gone to see a play. Mr. Jones was on the bus. Authorities are still trying to determine what drove him to allegedly pull out a gun and kill his classmates. Just as urgent is the question of whether the attack could have been prevented.

Just two months before the shootings, Mr. Jones had been brought to the attention of the university task force charged with identifying and responding to threatening student behavior. During a review of a hazing incident, a student told school staff that Mr. Jones owned a gun. No one officials interviewed, including Mr. Jones’s roommate, said they had seen the gun. Mr. Jones wouldn’t answer questions, but officials learned that Mr. Jones had been convicted of a misdemeanor concealed weapon violation in 2021, something he should have disclosed. Administrative disciplinary action was pending.

On the eve of Mr. Jones’s 2018 high school graduation, the Richmond Times-Dispatch profiled him, detailing how he grew up in public housing in Petersburg, Va., with three younger siblings who he often cared for; how he struggled after his parents divorced; how he was regularly disciplined for getting into fights. He seemed to have overcome those challenges, getting good grades, winning scholarships and earning acceptance to the state’s prestigious public university.

Now, the university has several questions to answer. How did Mr. Jones get his gun? How did it go undetected even after its existence was reported to the school? Why didn’t the university move faster to investigate Mr. Jones’s circumstances and press for disciplinary action? What warning signs did they miss?

Answering these questions will not bring back those who died or heal those who are wounded. But it is important that the public not become inured to these tragedies. The nation has logged another gruesome episode in its dysfunctional relationship with guns. Each one is different, but the lessons are so often the same. Once again, the public needs to relearn them.

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