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Gun culture shapes Virginia’s heritage

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Tense from the events on campus, Virginia Tech junior Cody Wilder sought release Wednesday morning by going to the Blacksburg Shooting Range – where he and his father took a .22-caliber rifle for target practice.

While Monday’s massacre has made many shudder at the thought of firearms, for some – especially in this part of the country – it has not.

In Virginia, the culture of gun ownership dates to colonial times, and the right to bear arms is considered a bedrock individual freedom – fiercely protected by native son Patrick Henry during the founding of the republic and today by many Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

“I don’t know if you can find many states who had two candidates for U.S. Senate with an ‘A’ rating from the National Rifle Association,” said Jessica Smith, spokeswoman for Sen. James Webb, an avid gun owner and a Democrat.

In the days since Monday’s shootings, more expressions of support for gun ownership have been evident on this shattered campus than have calls for stricter controls. On Wednesday, as mourners left orchids and white roses at a memorial marked by 32 stones on the campus’ central Drill Field, Scott Heldreth, a member of the religious organization “Operation Save America,” urged the crowd to realize “the issue isn’t guns; it’s sin.”

Speaking over a microphone, Heldreth said it “wouldn’t matter if you got rid of all the guns.” Instead, he said, events like the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings are a result of the deteriorating morality of society.

“It’s a constitutional right our founding fathers (created),” he said. “It wasn’t my decision. It was theirs.”

But the question of controlling possession of firearms was a hot topic at Virginia Tech last year, when the state legislature was debating a law that would have overturned campus regulations prohibiting firearms on campus. The bill was written in response to a dispute over a Virginia Tech student who was disciplined for bringing a firearm onto campus even though it was properly purchased and licensed.

The bill eventually failed, but C. Todd Gilbert, the Virginia delegate who championed it, said the point was not to encourage students to tote guns but to restrict universities from infringing on rights granted by the Legislature.

“I’m one of those people who believes that it’s not the law-abiding citizen who goes through the background checks that we need to worry about,” Gilbert said. “Safety and security are not threatened by people lawfully carrying firearms.”

Virginia gun ownership rules are relatively liberal, with most adults able to purchase firearms as long as they declare that they have not committed a felony or been involuntarily admitted to a mental hospital. A permit is needed only to carry a concealed firearm.

Whether and how the shootings at Virginia Tech play into debates over gun control both here and in the rest of the nation remains to be seen. But when the time comes to debate the tragedy’s affect on the right to bear arms, it’s likely that Virginia will take few cues from the rest of the nation.

“We’re celebrating our 400th anniversary in Virginia this year, and we have a unique history about our rights and how our rights were achieved,” Gilbert said. “A majority of Virginians still believe that the right to bear arms is an individual right that the government should have a limited ability to infringe on.”

And for many, gun ownership is a natural part of life.

At the firing range outside Blacksburg on Wednesday, as Wilder and his father fired at distant orange targets, the sound of gunfire crackled in the calm morning air.

Virginians do not need any more restrictions on gun possession, Wilder said: “I just think they need to enforce what laws are already there.”

The way Cody’s father, Duane Wilder, sees it, Virginia encompasses two cultures: an urban culture where guns are viewed as weapons used in violent crime, and a rural one in which guns are seen as instruments of sport.

Perhaps as a result, father and son agreed that Virginia Tech’s ban on guns should remain in place.

But at least some interest groups feel differently. Shortly after the shootings, a pro-gun rights group called the Virginia Citizens Defense League issued a statement on its Web site arguing that “if just one of those victims had been armed, this most probably would have turned out very differently.”

“The General Assembly turned a deaf ear to allowing college and university students to be able to protect themselves, and here we are today,” the group said.

Gov. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who supports the right to gun ownership, exploded in indignation during a news conference when asked about that statement. “People who want to take this within 24 hours of the event and make it their political hobbyhorse to ride, I have got nothing but loathing for them,” Kaine said.


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