Peter Read, like so many Americans whose lives have been ravaged by gun violence, has sought to fill the hole left by his daughter’s slaying in the Virginia Tech massacre through advocacy, in his case by pushing for tougher gun-safety laws.
ANNANDALE, Va. — Two days after yet another gunman opened fire on yet another college campus, Peter Read, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, was eating lunch on a paper plate in a gray cinder-block church basement in Annandale before two of his sons, Brendan, 11, and Patrick, 12, received Boy Scout badges and honors.
But Read’s mind, after the mass shooting in Oregon, was on the first of his six children, Mary, murdered at age 19 in the 2007 campus massacre at Virginia Tech. His blue eyes rimmed with red, he drew a large circle in the air with his hands, in the shape of a giant hole.
“Mary’s a hole,” he said. Life goes on, with Boy Scouts and swim practice and homework, but “everything else flows around” the hole, “a space that doesn’t close up.” He can’t stand it when people talk about moving on. “You can go forward,” Read said, “but you cannot move on.”
Like so many Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence, in places etched into the national psyche — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown and now Roseburg, Ore. — Read has sought to fill that hole through advocacy, in his case by pushing for tougher gun-safety laws.
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It has been a long and often dispiriting fight.
The Virginia Tech massacre, on April 16, 2007, holds a singular place in U.S. history. Thirty-two students and faculty members were killed, and 17 others wounded, in what remains the nation’s deadliest shooting rampage by a single gunman.
But with each new mass shooting, the circle of families like the Reads expands. Many have grown close, through gun-safety vigils and rallies. After each tragedy, text messages begin flying among survivors and families, asking, “Are you OK?” said Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was wounded at Virginia Tech. Today, Haas is the Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
In the years since his daughter’s death, Read, 53, has given interviews, spoken at Hollywood fundraisers for gun-control-advocacy groups, addressed legislatures in states as far away as Montana and knocked on more lawmakers’ doors than he can count. These days, fewer reporters come to call; there are newer grieving parents to interview.
Virginia, home to the National Rifle Association (NRA), has long been hostile to limiting gun rights. Read, a well-built, ruddy-faced former intelligence officer who has “carried semiautomatic and automatic weapons all over the world in places where bad guys wanted to kill me,” knows that even some families of victims at Virginia Tech, in Oregon and elsewhere think the solution is more guns, not fewer.
Still, Tim Kaine, a Democrat who was governor at the time of the Tech shooting and is now a U.S. senator, “thought for certain,” he said, that the massacre would spur action. He thought his Legislature would expand background checks, now required only for those who buy guns from federally licensed arms dealers, to all gun sales. So did Read.
Instead, Kaine made other changes. He used his executive powers to require mental-health records to be entered into the background-check database for gun buyers, signed legislation requiring colleges to have safety plans and increased funding for mental-health services.
“There was only one thing I was not able to do,” Kaine said. “The punch line is: I was not able to get my Legislature to even seriously contemplate any improvements to Virginia’s gun laws.”
Moment of action
Read’s advocacy began in May 2007, four weeks after he buried his daughter, when he learned the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights group whose president boasts it is “to the right of the NRA,” planned to raffle off firearms at a government building miles from his home.
Incensed, he called another Virginia Tech father, Joseph Samaha, a commercial real-estate broker whose daughter, an accomplished 18-year-old dancer named Reema, had been killed in the same French class as Mary. They decided to stand outside in silent protest, holding photographs of their slain daughters.
But after about two years on what he called “the treadmill” of fighting for gun control, Samaha, an elegant and soft-spoken man of Lebanese descent, turned his focus to a less contentious issue, campus safety.
As president of the Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Foundation, a group representing families and survivors, Samaha has steered the organization toward pushing campuses to adopt new warning systems — sirens and cellphone alerts — in emergencies, to expand mental-health services, to counter sexual assault, and to carry out other safety measures.
“I’m a doer,” he said over tea and Lebanese pastries in his living room, where a large, black-and-white oil painting of Reema, in a dance pose, rests against the marble fireplace. “I can’t wait for politicians to pass laws.”
Virginia has expanded gun rights at least twice since the Tech massacre. In 2010, Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, signed a bill allowing people with permits to take concealed weapons into bars — so long as they do not drink. In February 2012, he signed a repeal of a nearly 20-year-old law barring Virginians from purchasing more than one handgun a month. Before he did, he spoke to Haas and Peter Read by phone.
“We begged him not to do it,” Read said. “And he listened politely and thanked us for our input, and then he ignored us.”
That December, a gunman in Newtown, Conn., shot and killed his mother, 20 schoolchildren and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and himself; President Obama vowed to make changing gun laws his top priority.
On April 17, 2013 — six years and one day after Mary was killed — Read was seated in the gallery as the Senate blocked a vote on a bipartisan measure to expand background checks. Next to him was Haas; she shouted, “Shame on you!” at the lawmakers down below, and was promptly escorted out by the police.
Had Read joined her, he would have risked his job. He bit his tongue.
To ask Read how he goes on is to see a man struggling to contain his rage. Sometimes his wife will motion with her hands to try to quiet him. (“My adviser is telling me I’m being too angry,” he will say.) But he is angry, so he answers the question with questions of his own.
“How do I not?” he said, his face reddening. “When the time comes for me to see my daughter again, what do I tell her that I did?”
Today, some advocates of gun control see progress in the states. In the past two years, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Oregon and Washington have expanded background checks; Nevada voters will consider an initiative to do so next year.
Daniel Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says a state-by-state strategy may be the answer. But not in Virginia, vowed Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
“Background checks are a waste of time,” Van Cleave said. As to Read, he said: “I have to write him off as a grieving parent who is not being rational.”