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* * Under the gun

Let’s talk about freedom.

For the past several years, I’ve been an exhibitor at Blacksburg’s signature street fair, Steppin’ Out, selling the books I’ve authored. Sadly, this year’s event was clouded with controversy.

The pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) was denied a booth due to concerns that this family-oriented event featuring music, food, arts, crafts, and games was not the place for advocacy on political or social issues.

VCDL President Philip Van Cleave was quoted as saying, “They’ve been trying for years to keep us out of there. ... It was a silly move, all because they don’t like guns.”

The truth is that many attendees, myself included, were uncomfortable with all the guns being carried around, and complained to organizers. Historically, VCDL passed out free orange, round stickers that said, “Guns save lives.”

In denying access to booth spaces to VCDL, Downtown Blacksburg Inc., which runs the festival, decided also to deny space to other political organizations.

Having no booth, VCDL’s adherents instead wandered about the festival passing out these stickers. I saw children, even babies in strollers, wearing them.

I deeply resent the presence of the VCDL and hate everything they stand for.

Our community has suffered too much tragedy already from bullets. Steppin’ Out’s predecessor festival, Deadwood Days, was marked by the murder of teenager Edward Charles Disney by another teenager in 1979. The event was discontinued for a year, then resuscitated and renamed Steppin’ Out. Then of course our community was rocked by the mass murder on Virginia Tech’s campus in 2007, one of the worst in American history.

“Guns save lives” is the worst of Orwellian double-speak. Saying “Guns save lives” is analogous to saying “Matches put out fires.” Inarguably, the more guns you have around, the greater the likelihood that one will be used and people will be hurt.

The weekend before Steppin’ Out, at a similar festival in Gilroy, California, 15 people were shot, 3 fatally. At that event, the assailant, who according to witnesses was wearing Army fatigues, just “rose his gun up, and just started spraying out rounds left to right and right to left.” Within a minute, policies engaged the shooter and he shot himself fatally. Wrap your head around this: within 60 seconds, that bad guy with a gun wounded 15 people and killed three before good guys with guns could intervene. If guns had saved lives, nobody would have died.

In publicizing my appearance at the festival, I learned that several of my friends had decided not to go, feeling fearful and intimidated. Think about this; our friends and neighbors purposefully stayed away from one of our town’s biggest annual celebrations because other people, many like Van Cleave from distant places, bring their in-your-face open-carry tactics to terrorize us.

Sure, there are always anecdotal tales of armed citizens using guns to protect themselves from assailants. But statistically, more often than not, more people are hurt with their own guns than by someone else’s. If guns saved lives, America, with the highest per-capita gun ownership in the developed world, would be the safest and instead of one of the most deadly.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe in the First Amendment and the rights all of us have to express ourselves publicly. But at the same time, don’t we have the responsibility not to intimidate each other? Shouldn’t we have the freedom to gather in public spaces without fearing for our lives?

I want to get up in Van Cleave’s face, scream expletives, and tell him to take his weapons and stickers and go home. He would probably shoot me.




P.S. As I do the final edits on this, I learn that two more deadly shootings have occurred, one in El Paso, Texas and the other in Dayton, Ohio. The El Paso gunman released a screed in which he boasted to seeking the most lethal weapon he could find, including hollow-point rifle ammunition designed to expand and fragment on impact, creating catastrophic wounds. He described it as a “bullet unlike any other.” A self-avowed white supremacist, he specifically targeted Hispanic people and killed at least 20, with two dozen more injured. Two of the fatalities were a 24-year-old mother, who died shielding her 2-month old son, and her husband. This shooting lasted a mere 60 seconds before police shot him dead.

The Dayton shooting lasted only 32 terrible seconds. The shooter, who wore a bulletproof vest, killed 9 people including his sister. He was apprehended and taken into custody.

We need to wrap our heads around how tragically abnormal this is. Large groups of people routinely gather around the world without these instruments of death and without violence.

Folks, we are living in a traumatized nation at war with itself. It only stokes the fire when people come into our communities with messages of intimidation and violence.


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