It's a month before the November election, and I'm sitting pretty. Unopposed in my bid for the Alleghany County Board of Supervisors, I have nothing to prove but my basic competence and willingness to serve the citizens of my small western Virginia town.
Then I got the letter. The "Dear Candidate" letter.
Mailed to 300 candidates for local office in Virginia, the letter and accompanying survey came from the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group whose slogan is "Defending Your Right to Defend Yourself" and that sells a bumper sticker proclaiming "Guns Save Lives."
The group's reason for being was clear early in the letter: "We believe the Right to Keep and Bear Arms is our most precious constitutional freedom, as it serves as the means to protect all our other freedoms from infringement. Yet almost daily, this cherished right is under assault by various entities of the government."
(As a retired English teacher, I wondered whether the ironic humor of claiming an "assault" on the right to carry guns was intentional.)
I set the letter and survey aside and went back to signing my candidate introduction letters, which I am distributing throughout my district as I visit each house to listen to concerns.
But something drew me back to the VCDL letter and survey. The final paragraph left me speechless: "If you choose not to return the survey, you will not be considered for an endorsement by the VCDL-PAC and your failure to return the survey may be interpreted by our members, supporters, and other gun owners throughout the Commonwealth as indifference, if not outright hostility, toward the Right to Keep and Bear Arms."
Indifference? Outright hostility? Because I won't show the VCDL my hand on guns? Isn't that insinuation "outright hostility"?
I called the VCDL headquarters and hit pay dirt: President Philip Van Cleave answered the phone. He seemed surprised that I had not heard of his group, or of him.
I read him the last paragraph of the letter sent out by his PAC and told him, "It's rather threatening to be told that if I don't return an unsolicited survey, I'll be deemed 'hostile' by a gun rights group."
"And actually, we use the word may, not will," he said, "So it's not really a threat, is it?"
I asked how many candidates return the form. "I really don't know," he asaid. "I'll tell you that the candidates who hate guns never return their surveys. They are hostile, by and large," he continued.
"Or maybe they have other things on their minds than guns," I noted.
He insisted that his group's endorsement carries weight, with 28,000 people on an email list about gun rights. "Here are the facts," he said. "There are now about 500,000 permit holders in Virginia, most of them concealed-carry. . . . Virginia now has to give a concealed-carry permit to anyone who's not a convicted felon. People with concealed-carry permits are all law-abiding, good people. The cream of the crop."
The cream of the crop. Law-abiding, good people.
Two years ago, one of my former students was murdered on live television by a man who'd successfully applied for a concealed-carry permit. Adam Ward was a photojournalist for WDBJ-TV, the Roanoke CBS affiliate, and his father was one of my co-workers. Ward was one of the funniest students I taught, and his take on the world as we slogged through "The Scarlet Letter" and Hemingway never failed to make me smile.
Early in the morning of Aug. 26, 2015, Vester Lee Flanagan II opened fire on Ward and reporter Alison Parker, killing both. Flanagan had a concealed-carry permit for the Glock 9mm murder weapon. Flanagan later confessed and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Several days later, Parker's father, who was running for a position on the Henry County Board of Supervisors, withdrew from that race to devote himself to gun control. "I lost my daughter. And I'm not going to lose this fight," he said. "We just want to keep guns out of the hands of crazy people."
Guns in the hands of crazy people. Whom do we trust, in this time of guns and votes?
"Are you going to fill out your candidate survey?" Van Cleave asked me.
Yes, I am. Candidates across the United States should respond to gun-rights groups' requests for their stand on concealed weapons. Unless we stand up and say no to powerful gun lobbies pressing for more guns in more hands, then what happened in Las Vegas and to Adam Ward and Alison Parker in Virginia will happen again and again.
Because all politics — and all gun violence — is local.
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