Higher Aim: Guns, Safety and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings

Release of Virginia Tech Panel Report, Patrick Henry Building, Richmond, Virginia, 30 August 2007, Office of the Governor. Editor’s Note: The Library of Virginia, in partnership with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, sponsored four residential fellows for the 2016-2017 academic year to conduct in-depth research in the Library’s collections. Tom Kapsidelis, an independent author and former editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, spent the spring semester researching and writing Higher Aim: Guns, Safety and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings.

On one of the last days of my fellowship at the Library in July 2017, I peeked at a lock of John Randolph’s hair, read a letter from Ida Tarbell to Joseph Bryan about the aftermath of the Civil War, and delved further into Kaine administration archives and records on the 16 April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. It was the collection of the Governor Timothy M. Kaine records that attracted me to the library as part of my yearlong fellowship with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH), the first semester in Charlottesville and the second here at the Library. The VFH has supported my continuing work on a book that examines some of the issues in the decade after the shootings, primarily through the experiences of survivors and others in the community who were deeply affected.

Over the past seven months I’ve peppered my office neighbors Brent Tarter, John Deal and Mari Julienne with questions about their work as historians of more distant eras. How difficult is it to read the oldest handwritten letters and documents of Virginia and the nation’s history? What are some of the clues as to their reliability? How does the library care for its vast collection? I asked if I could step away from this century for a few moments to see a small representation, and John and Mari kindly obliged. The nature of the items they showed me seemed so fragile, yet full of enduring life. Quite the same, I thought, as the Library’s Kaine archives and emails telling the story of one of the saddest times in Virginia history.

Amid our rapidly changing communications technology,  the Library of Virginia has staked a claim to permanence through its exhaustive work on the Kaine collections, which continued this summer with the release of further documents and emails dealing with Virginia Tech. The overall project has been praised nationally as one-of-a-kind. In 2014, the Library was recognized as the first state government archives to make the emails of a previous administration freely available to the public online. More than 8,000 administration emails deal with the shootings. Combined with the emails and paper documents of the governor’s panel that investigated the massacre, the collection is a singular record of a historic tragedy at a major public university and the government’s response.

As with the Library’s precious early Virginia documents and letters, the Kaine collection has preserved in the most human way the communications that help tell the history of 16 April 2007. Through the email exchanges of the governor and his top aides comes the unvarnished real-time account–beginning with calls from administration officials to the governor in Tokyo, where he had just arrived for a trade mission, and then to the awareness of the increasing death toll and the realization of the immense loss of so many families.

Much of my book will focus on individuals who have gone on to advocate changes in laws, policies, and practices to help reduce the chances of future tragedies. But including the history of that day and the decisive months that followed has an added importance now, ten years after the shootings. While many will always remember where they were on that particularly unseasonably cold spring morning, for others the repeated mass violence that followed Tech has blurred their awareness. This December will be the fifth anniversary of the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and a little more than a year has passed since the deaths of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Though I worked in Blacksburg as the on-site editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch coverage beginning the day of the shootings and subsequently researched this book independently for several years, my exposure to the Kaine archives this spring helped more fully inform my writing and interviewing. Many of the emails are difficult to read without stopping to contemplate the awful burdens and infinitely far-reaching effects of the murders. Even simple emails and updates yielded profound expressions of emotion that demanded some response from Kaine and his staff. On other days new details and figures emerged who gave hope through their compassion and care for the victims and their families.

Thoughts on the Virginia Tech Families Meeting, 2007-06-25 15:09, KaineLibsharms.pst, Email Records from the Office of the Governor (Kaine: 2006-2010), Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA. The road to recovery and reconciliation was fraught with difficulties. The university was criticized for waiting too long to inform the campus of the first two shootings, and the missed signals that allowed killer Seung-Hui Cho to slip through multiple systems led to mental health reforms and widespread changes in how campuses and schools evaluate threats. These were among the findings of Kaine’s Virginia Tech Review Panel, and the governor set high standards for its work. This came into sharper focus after an emotional meeting with Tech families in June 2007. “My initial feeling was that we should make this investigation rock solid and let the liability issues fall where they may,” Kaine wrote in one email to key staff members. “I feel that even stronger after Saturday. A hard­hitting report might be used by trial lawyers against us. But, the liability issue is a small one when compared against the compelling need to learn all we can and improve all we can.”

In another email, the governor wrote the parent of a slain student that she had correctly identified the array of issues to have emerged from the shootings, questions that get at the heart of relationships and principles that had long been taken for granted. Kaine wrote:

Cho’s actions over the course of slightly more than two hours, and the circumstances over months and years that led him to mass murder and suicide, have called into question many fundamental aspects of university life, health care, mental health services, public safety, rights of privacy, police procedures, and responses to the needs of victims and victim families.

Work in all those areas continues today, and forms the underpinning of many of the personal stories I’ve researched. To see the issues reflected over the broad documentation of the Kaine collection shows the importance of this future direction in preserving the historical record for scholars and historians.

-Tom Kapsidelis

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