NARROWS, Va. — Allen Neely eases his Chrysler Pacifica onto the bridge named in honor of Jarrett Lane, who grew up in this tiny town near the West Virginia border. Jarrett, Neely says quietly, always wanted to build a bridge.
Under the back seat are two pistols. Neely keeps them close these days. He and his construction crew were in Virginia Tech's Norris Hall on April 16 when a mentally ill student went on a rampage — killing Jarrett Lane and 31 others.
Since then, Neely feels safer if his guns are within reach.
Over the past year, people here have questioned the mental health system, which allowed killer Seung-Hui Cho to fall through the cracks. They've questioned the university's security procedures, the media's glorification of violence. Fewer have questioned the state's gun laws.
Tools to be respected
The New River divides the town of Narrows, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains about 30 miles west of Virginia Tech's campus in Blacksburg. This is a typical southwest Virginia town: Many residents leave their doors unlocked, everybody knows everybody's business, and there seem to be as many churches as people.
And this is a community of hunters. Here, guns are tools to be respected; children are taught how to handle them.
Vicki Jones sits at a table with her friends in Anna's Restaurant, the town's gathering spot. Like most everyone in Narrows, she knew Lane, a 22-year-old senior majoring in civil engineering. He was high school valedictorian, athletic, funny, full of promise. More than half the town turned out for his memorial service.
Jones and her friends toss around suggestions for preventing tragedies like the one at Tech: Mental health checks for prospective students. Ridding TV shows of all the violence. They think the idea of allowing students to arm themselves for protection is crazy. But they don't believe gun control is the solution.
Thing is, Jones says as she picks at her salad, there's no simple solution to any of this.
Clamor for legislation dies away
Take a tour of Virginia, a year after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. You'll find little has changed — the state remains draped in memorial ribbons, bumper stickers and Tech flags, and the debate over firearms rages on.
Was the easy availability of guns to blame for what happened on that campus? Should the students have been allowed to carry firearms so they could have protected themselves? Did gun laws have anything to do with it at all?
In the weeks and months after the killings, there were protests and counter-protests. Legislation was drafted to tighten oversight of sales at gun shows, then quickly killed by Virginia lawmakers.
So the shows go on. On a recent weekend, an occasional flash of orange or maroon peeks through the crowd at the Richmond Raceway Complex gun show as someone in Virginia Tech attire passes through. The noisy chatter among prospective customers — middle-aged men, mothers with babies, fathers and sons — is occasionally broken by the crackle of a Taser gun demonstration.
There are 88 vendors, hawking everything from modern-day Glocks to 18th-century rifles. Sherry Ramey is one of them. She's also wearing a Virginia Tech sweat shirt. The 37-year-old is a proud alum.
Ramey was uncomfortable around guns until her husband bought her one. Now she's one of the many people in this room who believe students who are legally allowed to carry firearms should be permitted to have them in class.
"If you have a way to stop somebody," she says, "you should use it."
No background checks
Under state law, private sellers at shows don't have to run background checks of prospective customers. After Virginia Tech, opponents demanded that the law be changed to close what they called the gun show loophole; their opponents argued that Cho didn't buy his guns from a show, and lawmakers ultimately killed the legislation.
Terry Kirkpatrick leans back in his chair and watches customers pore over his antique firearms. The 65-year-old Vietnam veteran has been collecting guns since he was 12, when he found piles of broken Civil War weapons on his farm.
He's of a generation that learned how to hunt young, but that doesn't happen as much these days, he says. Land is being lost to construction, and there are fewer places to hunt. That means fewer people today are familiar with guns — and less understanding leads to more fear.
He doesn't think there's much room in metropolitan areas for guns unless they're locked up. But he doesn't believe in blanket bans on firearms.
"We're always gonna have nuts," he says. "We had it at Virginia Tech, we had it in Colorado."
Nearby, Ken Burton runs his hand along an antique pistol. To him, it is a work of art. He doesn't carry or shoot guns, but he loves the stories behind them — so much so that he moved to the U.S. from his native Australia to sell them. After 35 people were killed by a lone gunman in Tasmania in 1996, Australia instituted strict gun controls — an ineffective measure, Burton says.
"I think this is the best country in the world, and I think it's one of the safest countries in the world," he says. "And I think, well, if people have got guns, it'll stay safe."
Terrible loss on New Year's Eve
The bloodstains in front of Jeanette Richardson's two-story brick home have faded. Her anger has not.
A cold wind is blowing through this middle-class neighborhood in the eastern Virginia city of Newport News. Richardson wipes away tears and stands where her eldest son was shot to death by a stranger with a stolen gun.
It was New Year's Eve, and 18-year-old Patrick, home on Christmas break from art school, was ringing in 2004 with friends at a nearby party. Richardson and her husband were celebrating with neighbors.
She'd heard a lot of popping that night but dismissed the noise as fireworks — until a neighbor came running up to her, screaming.
Richardson found her son splayed out on his back on the street. She fell to her knees and crawled to him, but when she touched his leg, it was already growing cold.
Fury at the system of laws
After Patrick's death, she was outraged — furious at a system of laws she felt had done nothing to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
Slideshow: Virginia Tech Richardson didn't feel rage like that again until April 16, 2007, when she stood in an Illinois hotel room watching the breaking news of the Virginia Tech shootings on TV. She sank to the couch and wept. And she later told her friends, "Nothing's going to change. It's Virginia."
She'd already spent the two years since Patrick's death lobbying for stronger gun control. Within weeks of his murder, she had contacted the Brady Campaign and the Million Mom March, which was pushing to renew a ban on assault weapons. She founded a local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. She attended rallies and protests, marched and shouted and demanded change.
After Virginia Tech, she spoke at a protest held outside the Capitol in Richmond in support of closing the gun show loophole.
She knows there's a great chasm in Virginia and in the nation over guns. It's torn apart her own family. She hasn't spoken to her aunt, a gun owner who vehemently disagrees with her views, in more than three years.
"It's like civil war," she says, clutching a damp tissue. "It's a divider."
On the mantle over her fireplace is a self-portrait Patrick painted just hours before he died. Upstairs, one of her surviving sons is playing a computer game and cheering loudly.
If need be, she says, he'll push her wheelchair to protests when she's too old to walk.
Grassroots moms for gun control
Lily Habtu works a pair of scissors through orange and maroon fabric, the tendons of her wrist moving under skin still scarred by a bullet from Cho's gun. Around her, a dozen mothers are hunched over plastic tables in a hot, cramped art room of an Alexandria preschool, piecing together hundreds of memorial ribbons. A wall covered in children's handprints is partly obscured by a banner advertising the group's Web site: ProtestEasyGuns.com.
This has become an unlikely headquarters for a grassroots gun control contingent, the result of an idea generated by two moms standing next to a sandbox a day after the Virginia Tech shootings.
Most of these women had never been to a demonstration or thought about gun control. Now they are loud proponents of closing the so-called gun show loophole.
Alexandria, in northern Virginia, is a wealthy and largely liberal enclave. But the members of this group fall everywhere on the political spectrum, from far left to far right. Some have never been comfortable around guns, others grew up with them. They have made thousands of ribbons in the past year, worn by protesters nationwide.
Tina Gehring made so many her hands blistered. Then she made some more.
The leader of this pack, 42-year-old Abby Spangler, a willowy cellist and mother of two, is calling out updates: They now have commitments for more than 80 "lie-ins" nationwide for April 16. At each event, 32 people, the number of people killed by Cho, will lie down for three minutes, the amount of time it took Cho to buy his guns. This group will lie down in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Fighting back for change
"We are FIGHTING BACK!" she shouts. The women drop their scissors and glue guns and burst into applause.
Spangler makes no apologies for her anger. "You don't kill my fellow Virginians," she says, "and not expect us to fight back for change."
Habtu graduated last year and now lives at home with her family. She suffers from post-traumatic stress, scans unfamiliar rooms for the nearest exit, worries that another mass shooting could happen at any time. Her jaw, shattered by another bullet, never healed, and she was left with the face of a stranger.
This cause has become her life. She fills her days drumming up support and organizing lie-ins. It would be naive to think that changing one law would stop school shootings, she says. But it is a start.
Or do 'Guns Save Lives'?
A few hours later and 20 miles to the west in the equally liberal city of Fairfax, Philip Van Cleave stands in front of a room of around 30 rapt listeners. On his coat is a large, orange button: "Guns Save Lives."
Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, is delivering a lecture, "Concealed Carry — Changing the Debate," at George Mason University. In the audience are members of the College Republicans and Students for Concealed Carry.
He details the horrors of a 1991 mass shooting at a Texas restaurant where 23 were killed. Just like at Virginia Tech, he points out, none of the victims was armed. They died helpless and powerless.
There isn't time to wait for police in these situations, Van Cleave says. A gun is an equalizer, a lifesaving tool. But the other side, he says, doesn't understand that.
"Rule No. 1 for those of you that are new to this: Don't ever, ever, EVER apply logic to gun control," he says. "Gun control is about emotion."
Unsettled by displayed weapons
Later, Van Cleave and seven friends stroll into a Fuddruckers restaurant, their guns openly displayed on their hips. Most customers look up briefly, then return to their dinners.
A few members of a Pittsburgh college tennis team are eyeing Van Cleave's group. Some think the guns are funny, others are unsettled. They had no idea firearms were allowed in restaurants.
"I just don't see the need," says 19-year-old Emily Himmel.
The need is clear, says Van Cleave: You never know when your life will be on the line.
"To some degree, if somebody is nuts and they're determined to kill other human beings, there's nothing you can do to stop them," he says. "But you can at least protect yourself."
Difficult to move on
At the convenience store back in Narrows, cashier Jessica Perdue pauses while ringing up customers.
"I don't know that there is a solution," she says finally. "People are gonna be sick, they're gonna do things. It's like — I don't know."
She trails off and stares at the counter.
Across the street at the MacArthur Inn, Allen Neely nurses a soda and watches CNN. He doesn't really know how to move on from the tragedy, doesn't really know how to stop another one.
"It's gonna happen again somewhere," he says. "I just hope I'm not there."
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