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The wind shifts / March 28, 2018
Hey fellow old people: Let’s have a word. Our generation has gone on a tear running down the younger generation in the wake of this weekend’s March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. You know the type I’m talking about: mature adults grousing to anyone within earshot, asking why, on the subject of gun violence or anything else, we should listen to kids who don’t know jack, who can barely tie their shoelaces or pull up their pants, when they insist on getting a word in edgewise. Oh-kay. But then there’s this: These supposedly hapless kids — delicate flowers all — just brought a million-plus people out in the streets. Maybe now it’s time to listen?

If you missed the speeches Saturday by the rally’s amazingly eloquent teen-and tween leadership — among the youngest speakers was Naomi Wadler, 11, of Alexandria, who was flat-out dynamite — pull up the videos and see for yourself what these kids had to say. (It’s easy enough to do on YouTube.) Many of the speeches were delivered by the young survivors of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, who have emerged as leaders of the gun safety movement, but others on the stage included Edna Chavez of south Los Angeles, a 17-year-old Latino girl (“I learned to duck bullets before I learned to read”), Trevon Bosley, a black teen from Chicago who lost his brother to gun violence, and Yolanda Renee King, nine-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr. The rally speeches drew on the searing personal experiences of ordinary youths — white, black and brown, from upper income gated communities and inner city neighborhoods — who have good reason to fear guns. These kids have come forward to have their say. And they are not going away.

As the streets of D.C. overflowed Saturday, marchers were afoot in Richmond, too, demanding the passage of common sense gun purchasing laws in Virginia. Estimates placed the crowd at the Capitol Square at 5,000 — an impressive turnout, especially given the untold numbers of Virginians who headed for the nation’s capital to join the March for Our Lives main act. Here at home, it was Richmond-area students who delivered the powerful message that gun violence happens when people with malice in their hearts have unfettered access to deadly weaponry. The aim of their movement isn’t to confiscate guns from law-abiding citizens. It’s to strike down the fear tactics and lies that the gun lobby and sympathetic politicians spread to forestall passage of laws that will address the carnage we see unfolding in our everyday lives.

Here’s a chilling statistic: 764. That’s the number of children age 17 and under in the U.S. who have died from shootings in 2018, only three months into the year. (The figure comes from the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks gun incidents around the U.S. using publicly available sources of information.) Here at home, we just lost 16-year-old Paul Damiano, a student at Halifax County High School, who died in a March double shooting in which a 20-year-old male suspect has been charged with murder. In Mecklenburg County, an 18-year-old Bluestone senior, Evan Ashad Smith, was shot dead on a weekend night in Chase City. Two young people dead in March alone, with more senseless deaths to come. We adults should be embarrassed and ashamed that it has taken the cries of youth to force us to pay attention to a problem that has been ignored for far too long.

I’m glad Richmond saw its share of action with the March for Your Lives rallies. (I was there Saturday with my wife and daughter.) The clear takeaway, in case anyone cares to deny the obvious, is that this movement is poised to deliver votes on a scale that should strike fear in the hearts of the NRA and its legislative water carriers. Virginia presents a very interesting case in this regard. We are just coming off of an election in 2017 that saw Democrats capture 15 seats in the House of Delegates — coming within a coin flip of taking 16 — while the party’s nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general romped to easy victories. All campaigned on explicit, anti-NRA platforms. Meantime, no Republican has been elected to statewide office since 2009, when Bob McDonnell won the governor’s race. Contrary to the sense of denial in some conservative redoubts, Republicans might as well write off this year’s U.S. Senate race (Democratic incumbent Tim Kaine is up for re-election) and focus on Congressional seats, where GOP incumbents are at dire risk. (Republican incumbents whose seats are in jeopardy, in rough order of vulnerability, are Barbara Comstock in the 10th Congressional District, Scott Taylor in the 2nd, Dave Brat in the 7th and our very own Tom Garrett here in the 5th.) After the 2017 blowout, Virginia Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the House of Delegates, a 21-19 edge in the State Senate, and not much else. One more bad election cycle and the party’s influence in Richmond is all but kaput.

Think about that. Only two seats have to fall in the House of Delegates and one in the Senate — Virginia’s next legislative elections will be held in 2019 — and Southside lawmakers such as Frank Ruff, James Edmunds, Danny Marshall and Tommy Wright will become more irrelevant than ever in Richmond. Oh, they’ll always have the Virginia Tobacco Commission to fall back on. (Until someone takes that pot of money away.) Because rural Virginia will be perceived — accurately — as having been supplanted by urban interests in the legislature, there’s no end to the depths our politicians will be able go to whip up feelings of resentment and anger, if that’s the option they choose: all sound and fury, signifying nothing. James Edmunds, who represents the area in the House of Delegates, in particular has a loyal following on Facebook that he spends a great deal of time cultivating. It’s plainly more fun singing along with the amen chorus than trying to get something done in Richmond.

But what happens when the ramparts fall and Republican lawmakers no longer have the ability to impede gun control bills moving through the legislature? What then? Any chance our area reps will regret their longstanding refusal to meet northern Virginia and urban-area legislators halfway in a sincere effort to address gun violence? Once the political balance flips in Richmond — and make no mistake, the day is coming — there’s no telling what kinds of bills will be drafted and voted into law. Ruff, Edmunds, Wright et al have at the present moment the ability to stamp rural sensibilities onto common sense gun legislation, but instead of doing that, they’re taking the easy way out by pretending to do their darndest to protect regional interests at the state level. They’re not. They never do. And so the pathetic representation of Southside Virginia in the halls of power continues.

Of course, leveling with one’s own supporters about what is possible in politics — what a course of pragmatism allows, and what it gains — requires a degree of courage, commitment and guts. Which is something else the political leadership of Generation Gray has hidden away so as not to disturb old folks as they spend their days grumbling about young folks. No guts, no glory, or so they say. Meanwhile, I don’t know how every other 50-something feels about the sensible demands of our children, but to this old geezer, it’s not hard to tell which direction the winds of the future are blowing.

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