This week, PolitiFact Virginia editor Warren Fiske interviewed Tom Kapsidelis about his new book, “After Virginia Tech: Gun Safety and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings.”
Fiske: I'm Warren Fiske with WCVE news and I have with me Tom Kapsidelis, the author of “After Virginia Tech: Gun Safety and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings.” A lot has been written about the days and weeks around April 16, 2007, when a gunman murdered 32 students and professors and wounded 17 before killing himself.
Tom's new book takes a story forward and tells us how the survivors of the assault and the families of the slain have coped physically and emotionally. Tom was a journalist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch for 28 years. And in the interest of transparency, I should note that I've known him for more than 40 years, since our days at the University of Maryland, and he's a good friend. Welcome, Tom.
Kapsidelis: Warren, thanks so much for having me today.
Fiske: You lived and breathed this book for 10 years. What motivated you to write “After Virginia Tech?”
Kapsidelis: I was assigned to Blacksburg on April 16th for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I was sent to Blacksburg. I arrived at about four o'clock that afternoon and I was in charge of the coverage there. I edited the stories from Blacksburg, sent them back to Richmond.
While I was in Blacksburg and for the succeeding days, the tragedy he left a great impact on me, and it was a story that I followed closely as a journalist off and on for about three years after the shooting. Around 2010, I became more aware of the struggles and the sometimes hostile backdrop the survivors and the families faced at a time of expanding gun rights nationally.
Coming back from Richmond after the shootings in Blacksburg, I was struck by the empathy and the concern for the Virginia Tech families. Three years later, I wanted to examine this divide of how a state that had grieved so profoundly in the aftermath of the shootings now found itself and the country divided over the issue of gun rights. Over time, I expanded the focus of the book to include safety and healing as themes.
Fiske: You found that a number of the survivors, after the passage of time, realized that they were experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. So did some of the policemen who were called to the scene. How did that manifest itself, and how did they deal with it?
Kapsidelis: They dealt with it in different ways. Many people who were able to avail themselves of counseling and others struggled without counseling. Some came to seek assistance earlier; some later.
One of the lesser-known elements of the struggle to heal is the plight of the police officers who had been first responders at Norris Hall and were traumatized by what they had seen. My book includes stories of two police chaplains and a Blacksburg police lieutenant who became involved in a movement to help officers who responded. They went on to found the Virginia Law Enforcement Assistance Program. It was a direct result of the work they had done with officers who responded on campus that day.
Fiske: Does (PTSD) ever go away?
Kapsidelis: I think, a decade later, we're still learning how people deal with post-traumatic stress and how they cope with it; how they mitigate some of the worst problems. Indeed, for many, it will be something that will never totally go away.
Colin Goddard, Virginia Tech survivor. (Photo: Steve Helber/Associated Press)
Fiske: It seems like every few weeks a mass murder is occurring somewhere in this country. Have we made any progress in Virginia or across the nation in solving this problem since Virginia Tech?
Kapsidelis: I think the last two weeks we've really seen how much work there is yet to be done in this in this area.
There were some immediate reforms in the aftermath of Virginia Tech. Gov. (Tim) Kaine took steps to strengthen the reporting of information to the background check system in Virginia. There was an immediate infusion of money into the state's mental health system. That money was cut later as an impact of the Great Recession.
Changes in gun laws - gun safety laws - have not taken place by in large in Virginia. There have been some reforms in many other states across the nation. Reforms at the federal level in the United States Congress have been slow in coming. With the recent switchover in the U.S. House of Representatives, we've seen a gun background check bill passed that faces very uncertain future in the Senate as of right now. But the fact that many of the progressive members who were elected to the U.S. House this past year were supporters of gun safety legislation, I think, augurs well for, perhaps, some future progress in state capitals.
We've seen the passage of gun violence protection order laws, some increased safety measures. I think that the mobilization represented by the Parkland students was a tremendous boost to that cause. I think in our country all social change and important political change comes about incrementally rather as one epiphany moment. An I think that people have been in this struggle for the long-term have been in this fight for the long haul. I think they may be seeing some doors opening.
Fiske: Do you see any signs of movement in Virginia in the legislature?
Kapsidelis: All the gun safety legislation this past year in the Virginia General Assembly, I think, by large, was dispatched on one day in one subcommittee. But as you know, the margins are very close in the Virginia General Assembly. And I think that for gun safety advocates, it will take electing people who support their views - their positions- to make that come about.
Fiske: Where do you think we need to go to solve this problem now?
Kapsidelis: The subtitle of my book, “Gun Safety and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings,” really reflects the directions of some of the main people in my book. Colin Goddard, who was shot and survived, went on to become a gun safety advocate. John Woods, whose girlfriend was murdered, went on to be involved in gun safety and then moved to Texas, where he was part of the movement to oppose carrying concealed weapons on campus, which later did become law. But in opposing that in Texas, John made a connection with some of the survivors of the 1966 Tower shootings in Texas, which many people really point to ais the start of our contemporary discussion and problems with mass gun violence.
Kristina Anderson, who was also shot and wounded in (a Virginia Tech) French class, her focus is safety overall - safe communities, safe campuses - and connecting survivors of different tragedies, mass shootings, together with so they can learn from one another's experiences healing. I look at the efforts that have been made to help people who have been traumatized, help police who have been traumatized. I think all those factors need to be considered as a whole.
However, for it to be successful, I think there do need to be some greater restrictions in gun ownership; more steps are taken to ensure that weapons don't fall into the hands of people who shouldn't have them. I think when things may go wrong with one individual, or there's a crisis in one shape, form or another, if that person is in a place where access to guns is easy, that's an awful situation.
So I think there need to be some greater restrictions: Any number of the restrictions that have been advocated to ensure that the guns that are in the country that are used are kept safely and the people who shouldn't have access to weapons don't get them.
Warren Fiske (L) with Kapsidelis. (Photo: Craig Carper/WCVE)
Fiske: What do you hope will come out of your book?
Kapsidelis: You know, so many people who I’ve spoken with, they comment on how many mass shootings have been and they comment on how many tragedies there have been, and they're saddened and they're concerned.
But I think they also feel a blur. They feel concern. They feel fear in some instances. They want to do something to help but they also, I think, are faced with a blur of news not only of a blur of news about gun violence but just the way news comes at us now in the 24/7 news cycle. I'd like for people to read my book and come away with an understanding of the longer view of what happens after a tragedy; how survivors' families and their supporters go forward and how they persevere and what their opinions are, and what needs to be done to make the country safer.
Fiske: What have you learned? If you had to choose a primary lesson that you've learned in researching and writing this book, what would you say that is?
Kapsidelis: I think it's the chance to meet people who are willing to share their stories over a longer period of time and to allow this project to tell their stories; not only just in the context of what happened that tragic day, but in all that they've tried to do since then.
(At a) talk I gave, I met a parent of a student who was in one of the classes at Norris Hall but who was not injured, and she said that all the students who returned to Virginia Tech after that tragic day and graduated and went on with their careers, went on with their professional lives, that some of them became advocates for gun safety and other issues others we may not hear as much about. And she said it was important to recognize that all those students, families, professors - for them to go back and persevere, that shows great courage and bravery also, and I feel that's something I've tried to express in the book as well. And I think the advocates who attained a more public view are also quick to point that out so there can be a positive note that emerges from a tragedy like this.
Fiske: What So, if there can be a positive note that can emerge from a tragedy like this, what do you might think that might be?
Kapsidelis: I think there are a lot of people who care. I think there are a lot of people in this world who want to do the right thing. They want to honor the memories of those who were slain and they want to do it through showing their concern through their advocacy.
I think sometimes these positive voices are drowned out by a very divisive debate that takes place at a level way up the line from them, and it's not really reflective of how individual people sometimes may look at these issues.
Fiske: We've been chatting with Tom Kapsidelis, the author of “After Virginia Tech: Gun Safety and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings,” published by the University of Virginia Press. If you're interested in tracking Tom's upcoming appearances, you can track him on Kapsidelis.com.Thank you, Tom, for coming.
Kapsidelis: Warren, thanks so much for having me here today.
Fiske: I'm Warren Fiske, WCVE News.