Advocating Gun Safety in West Virginia

By Guest Blogger: Sue Julian and Tonia Thomas

Was Newtown a turning point on the debate over guns and gun safety in our country? The recent defeat of a measure that would require background checks on guns purchased on the internet or at gun shows suggests that nothing has changed.

For the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WVCADV), it has. For the first time in our coalition’s history, we took a formal position in support of policies that would increase gun safety in our country. We took this position despite a wide range of opinions in our coalition about guns and gun ownership.

WVCADV has corporate positions on other complex, often controversial issues, including reproductive health and the death penalty and could draw on our experience of creating common ground for dialogue and for action. So in January, with Newtown fresh in our minds, we circulated a packet of background materials, framed questions for discussion, and then set aside a half-day to meet in person.  

       Questions for discussion

  • What is importance of WVCADV taking position on gun safety legislation?
  • What are risks and benefits of taking a position?
  • How ready is WVCADV to take a corporate position?

The background packet included data on guns and domestic homicides in West Virginia. Like many other states we track media and state homicide reports for information and work backward to see if it is a situation of domestic violence and if so, what weapon was used. We supplemented this with national data from the Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence and other resources. The data were sobering.

In 2012, more than 37 women in West Virginia were killed by a spouse or intimate partner. More than 50% of these homicides involved a firearm. Taken one at a time, these incidents don’t have the same emotional impact as the murders in Newtown. But these homicides are part of a larger pattern of violence in our culture and as advocates and providers we know that every murder has a lasting and often damaging impact on those left behind. 

We also looked at recent Supreme Court decisions on the Second Amendment. We realized that even though cases like District of Columbia v Heller and McDonald v. Chicago upheld the right of citizens to bear arms, interpretation of the rights of gun ownership varies; there are reasons for withholding that right.  Finally, we looked at side-by-side arguments for supporting or opposing measures likes background checks or limits on assault weapons.

At the start of the discussion, we used the term ‘gun control’ but moved quickly to focus on the issue of ‘gun safety’. Some members of our coalition own guns as part of a family legacy; others have family members who have served in the military or have spouses who have permits to carry a concealed weapon. Still others believe that only law enforcement officials would ever need to carry a gun. We began to de-link the question of gun ownership from the question of safety. By acknowledging the complexity of the issue up front, we were able to soften up entrenchment on either side and allow people with different points of view a chance to listen and to learn from each other. 

We learned that those who owned guns or who had family members who owned guns were registered gun owners and had gone through a background check. In our view, these steps made them responsible gun owners. We began to ask, why wouldn’t we want everyone to do this, particularly when we know the consequence can be something like mass murders or homicides?

The discussion would get tense but when that happened we would pause, step back,   and re-focus the discussion on the mission and vision of the WVCADV: a vision of nonviolence. We always came back to the central question - What creates safety for us? What jeopardizes that safety? What is achieved by enforcing gun safety legislation? What is compromised? The risk, we agreed, was that we might lose some support in different parts of the state. The benefit was that a proactive position on these questions would position the coalition and our members to better advance a discussion of safety for our homes and our communities.

At the end of the day, our shared desire to avoid another mass murder or another domestic homicide led us to support a series of what we agreed were common sense measures, including universal background checks. We wanted to know that anyone purchasing a gun, including those who were purchasing guns at gun shows, was being screened for criminal and mental health records. We also agreed to support a ban on military assault weapons.

The legislative session opened just a few days later and there was an onslaught of, mostly reactionary, gun measures. For example, a National Rifle Association sponsored bill would exempt permit conceal carry permit holders from having to go through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System when purchasing another firearm.

We were so grateful to have had the discussion because we felt confident about what we agreed on and what we stood for. We were prepared to take positions on these bills, to speak publicly, and to mobilize. We were proud to be able to stand with Senator Manchin when he introduced an amendment requiring background checks on all guns sold on the internet and at gun shows.

Unfortunately, the defeat of even this common sense measure is a sobering wake-up call about the work we have to do. But at WVCADV, we are ready. Rather than waiting for the next Newtown to happen, we are being proactive. We are educating our allies and our elected officials about the connection between gun safety and domestic violence. We are connecting with other organizations and coalitions working to create a climate of safety instead of a climate of fear or of violence. 

Sue Julian and Tonia Thomas

Sue Julian and Tonia Thomas are the Team Coordinators of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Sue and Tonia have focused on building a strong statewide domestic violence network, on developing and strengthening public policy as it relates to domestic violence and oppression; and in making connections between violence in homes, communities, and the world. Their work includes raising public awareness about the prevalence and prevention of abuse and violence in intimate relationships, training professionals in their response to domestic violence, and providing technical assistance to domestic violence programs. Sue and Tonia envisions a future where equality, mutuality, respect, stewardship and accountability are valued in personal, political, professional, business and community relationships.