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Aya Driouche

Gov. Northam Gives a ‘Whoot’ about Reading

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service
 
RICHMOND -- Gov. Ralph Northam sat down with first-graders at Woodville Elementary School on Friday morning and read Dr. Seuss’ “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins” in celebration of Read Across America Day.
 
The national event, created by the National Education Association in 1997, falls on the birthday of the late Theodor Geisel, best known for writing more than 60 children's books under the pen name Dr. Seuss.
 
Teachers, politicians, athletes and celebrities across the nation participate in Read Across America by taking part in activities to encourage children to read.
 
“These babies are the leaders of tomorrow. We want them to learn at an early age that it is important to read because you can’t function in a society if you can’t read or write,” said Shannon Washington, principal of Woodville Elementary.
 
At the school, staff members sported Dr. Seuss hats and costumes and volunteers welcomed parents and family members who joined the students. Visitors were handed Dr. Seuss books as they signed in.
 
Northam joined Tawnya Jones’ first-grade class. The children were excited to share their dreams and goals with Northam, who stressed the importance of reading before starting in on  “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.”
 
Washington said that at Woodville, reading is celebrated by students and teachers. “The kids come to my office as a principal for reading, and it’s not punishment– the kids are excited about reading, and they want people to hear them read,” she said.
 
 
“We celebrate reading, and we promote it and encourage students to share their love for reading and the adults to share their love for reading,” Washington said. “We want children to see the importance of literacy. As the adults, we have to show kids our love for reading.”

MLK III Speaks Out Against Gun Violence

By Aya Driouche and Alexandra Sosik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Decrying America’s “culture of violence,” the oldest son of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. praised the survivors of last week’s school shooting in Florida for demanding that government officials implement restrictions on guns in the U.S.

Speaking at Virginia Commonwealth University, Martin Luther King III commended students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were shot and killed on Valentine’s Day, for taking a stand and calling on elected officials to act on gun control.

“Once again, children, young people, lives interrupted forever, of all ages and every ethnic group,” King said. “We could say it’s mental illness, but maybe it’s the climate that exists in our nation. We have certainly created and sustained a culture of violence.”

King spoke Sunday at an event that had been rescheduled from Jan. 21, during VCU MLK Celebration Week, due to inclement weather.

The event came four days after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, according to authorities, opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, killing three adults and 14 students. It was the ninth deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

King accused Congress of remaining silent after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where Adam Lanza gunned down 26 teachers and students.

King pointed to the movement to end sexual harassment that has swept the country as an example of positive cultural change. He said he is optimistic that America will soon see the same results with gun control.

“Every week, someone is losing a job because of the tragedy of sexual harassment that should never have happened,” King said. “So I would say even on this issue where people tragically lost their lives, we don’t know where it’s going to lead, but I am hopeful.”

King said he has personally experienced gun violence not once, but twice. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Five years later, King told the VCU audience, his grandmother, Alberta King, was shot and killed in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta by a man who intended to kill her husband.

“It did not deter me or distract me because I had to learn to dislike the evil act but still love the individual,” King said.

He also addressed last August’s chaos in Charlottesville, where white supremacists participated in a “Unite the Right” rally against the removal of a Confederate statue. A counter-protester was killed by a man authorities have described as a neo-Nazi.

King said that, in the pursuit of ratings and revenues, the media magnify the number of Americans who commit hate-motivated violence.

“There were 200 white men who marched in Charlottesville, not 200,000,” King said. “But the media would have you think that every white male American was marching with those 200 because they kept, over and over again, running the story on every channel.”

Like his father, King urged people to avoid violence even if it’s to raise awareness for an issue.

“The moment an individual commits violence even for a good cause, that person’s credibility is shredded,” he said. “The quickest way to surrender your dignity and credibility is to engage in violence.”

King wrapped up by encouraging people to not let others discourage them from following their dreams.

“Remember – every great leader, including Martin Luther King Jr., was once a young person who had doubts about what he or she could do, but they persevered with courage. Be courageous. Don’t let anyone make you feel like there’s nothing you can do. Be guided by your dreams, not distracted by your peers.”

After Shooting, Democrats and Republicans Mourn But Disagree Over Guns

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly have expressed frustration over Republicans’ refusal to take up gun control legislation in the wake of Wednesday’s deadly school shooting in Florida.

“We extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, but our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” House Minority Leader David Toscano and Del. Charniele Herring, who chairs the Virginia House Democratic Caucus, said in a joint statement.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead and 14 injured. It was the deadliest school shooting in the United States since 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

“These tragedies are not inherently inevitable; rather, they are enabled by the continued failure of policy-makers to act,” Toscano and Herring stated. “We have been entrusted by the public to institute policies to keep our communities safe, and we are failing the people who elected us to do so.”

Republican legislators said that they too are concerned about gun violence but that lawmakers should not be rash.

“It seems like we’re playing whack-a-mole,” said Del. John McGuire, R-Henrico. “Every time there’s a problem in society, we want to have a quick reaction. That’s why I say we need to stand back and see what’s going on.”

Democrats chided Republicans for such statements, including a comment by Del. Thomas Wright, R-Lunenberg, who said of the Florida shooting: “My heart goes out. But when it comes to the constitutional right to defend yourself and your family, that’s something that’s guaranteed.”

On the Senate floor, Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, said shootings happen at schools because they are gun-free zones. “The idea that we disarm our people in the schools – we forbid our teachers and our staff from carrying concealed firearms – is a mistake,” he said.

This legislative session, Virginia Republicans proposed bills to repeal the state’s prohibition on bringing weapons to houses of worship. Such a measure passed the Senate on a party-line vote and is awaiting action in the House.

Virginia Democrats also have proposed several bills regarding guns, including:

  • Banning bump stocks, a device that allows a semi-automatic rifle to mimic the firing speed of a fully automatic weapon. Bump stocks were used by the shooter who killed 58 people and injured more than 500 at a concert in Las Vegas in October.
  • Instituting universal background checks on people who want to buy guns, including in private sales and at gun shows. Democrats said opinion polls show that most Virginians support such a law.
  • Keeping guns away from individuals who may present a threat to themselves or others. Legislationintroduced by Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan Jr., D-Arlington, would have allowed prosecutors and law enforcement officers to seek a court order to remove firearms from such individuals.

All of those bills were killed in committees controlled by Republicans.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump announced that he would visit the site of the Florida massacre and make school safety a priority when he meets with the nation’s governors next month.

“To every parent, teacher and child who is hurting so badly, we are here for you, whatever you need, whatever we can do, to ease your pain,” Trump said. “Your suffering is our burden also.”

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan urged Americans to come together and not politicize the shooting. “This is pure evil,” he said.

The shooter has been identified as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled from Stoneman Douglas High School for disciplinary reasons. Students who knew Cruz said he openly talked about his infatuation with guns. The FBI was warned in January that Cruz was a potential threat but did not act on the information.

Democratic Del. Cheryl Turpin, a teacher from Virginia Beach, discussed the shooting on the floor of the Virginia House. Like Ryan, she urged people to refrain from playing politics with the tragedy. But Turpin said that should not prevent legislators from enacting gun laws.

“Our call to action is not a political one but a plea for mercy, a plea that we will put politics aside and address this crisis head-on,” Turpin said.

“Waiting around for the right time to have this conversation, yet again, will only put more lives at risk. There are too many empty chairs in dining rooms across America due to our inaction on gun reform.”

Democrats Vow to Push for Gun Control Laws

Del. John Bell talks about enforcing gun control laws in Virginia. (CNS photo by Aya Driouche)

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democratic legislators said Tuesday they will continue to fight for gun control laws as Republicans continued to kill bills to restrict firearms.

Six Democratic delegates held a press conference to discuss proposals such as banning weapons from public libraries. Del. Roslyn Tyler of Sussex County said gun violence has been endangering Virginians for years.

“We cannot allow this problem to get worse,” Tyler said. “We cannot stay idle as gun violence leads to more and more empty seats at the dinner tables across the country.”

Del. John Bell of Loudoun County touted his bill to require applicants for a concealed weapons permit to show in-person “competence with a handgun.” Currently, applicants can get a permit by completing a video or online training course.

Bell called HB 91 a “very common-sense bill.” Last week, a House subcommittee killed it on a 4-2 vote.

Bell, who served in the U.S. Air Force for more than 26 years, noted that he went through extensive training to be able to carry a weapon. He said civilians also should receive adequate training in front of a certified instructor before obtaining a concealed carry permit.

“The current online training is far inadequate,” Bell said. “It doesn’t have eyes on from qualified instructors to know if that holster is properly fitted. You have to watch those things in real life, in real time.”

Groups such as the National Rifle Association opposed Bell’s measure. He said they should support it.

“I believe the groups like the NRA and the Virginia Citizens Defense League who oppose this bill are missing a tremendous opportunity to provide low-cost frequent training and to do a public good,” Bell said.

“I believe in the Second Amendment. I’m a gun owner. But I think responsible gun ownership is important, and I believe every gun owner should have a background check and should show they were properly trained before they’re given a concealed carry permit.”

So far this session, Republicans have defeated several gun control bills sponsored by Democrats, including one to require background checks on all gun purchases. On Monday, the Republican majority in the House rejected a resolution to ban firearms from the chamber’s gallery while delegates are in session.

Shortly after the Democrats’ news conference, Republican legislators held one of their own. They argued that citizens should be able to carry weapons in places of worship.

Virginia law prohibits guns in churches and other religious settings. But last week, the Senate voted 21-18 along party lines to repeal that law.

Just as politicians are protected by armed security, members of a congregation should be allowed to arm themselves for self-defense, said Del. Dave LaRock of Loudoun County.

He stood next to a poster of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam speaking to an interfaith group about gun violence at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church last week. LaRock pointed out that the governor’s security detail was nearby.

LaRock said it is not fair that the governor gets treated differently than Virginia citizens who are barred from carrying weapons in places of worship. He said it appears to be a double standard.

“The law that’s on the book says that weapons are prohibited in church without good and sufficient reason, which is vague,” LaRock said. “And we don’t believe laws that are vague should be on the books.”

He said Northam signaled that he would veto SB 371, which would rescind that law, if it passes the General Assembly.

“We pose the question,” LaRock said. “He deserves armed protection in church, but others don’t? We’re just asking him to fill in the blank and explain to us why.”

Thousands Celebrate Anniversary of Women’s March in D.C.

By Logan Bogert and Aya Driouche, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON – On the anniversary of the 2017 Women’s March, thousands of women and their allies took to the streets of D.C. on Saturday to make a statement – march to the polls in November.

“March on the Polls,” the theme of the follow-up demonstration to what some have called the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, featured speakers including U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, state Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler of Virginia Beach and Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters.

“One year ago, millions of women and the men and children that have their backs marched to send the message that women deserve to be heard, women deserve to be respected, women deserve to lead,” Kaine told the crowd.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also addressed the gathering. She urged women to show up not only the day of the march “but in town halls.”

Speakers urged women to get involved politically. It was a message epitomized by Convirs-Fowler, who defeated Republican incumbent Ron Villanueva to become one of the first Asian-American women elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.

“Last year I marched, then I ran – then I won,” Convirs-Fowler said.

Saturday’s demonstration began in front of the Lincoln Memorial and marched to the White House. While much smaller than the 2017 Women’s March, thousands still participated. Many demonstrators displayed signs with messages like “The Blue Wave is Here” and “I’m With Her.”

The attendees included Hanover resident and Virginia Commonwealth University alumna Susan Stokes. She said it was important to march “so we can all understand that we are large in number and that we’re not fighting the fight alone, and we can accomplish things when we stick together.”

In addition to the anniversary march in D.C., sister marches were held in cities across the country. The official 2018 Women’s March will be held in Las Vegas on Sunday.

D.C. resident Amanda Quemore said the demonstrations represented “a collective movement of people coming together saying we need to do better, and we need to work together.”

“I think marches are a first good start,” Quemore said. “But I do think there needs to be some better organization around the issues so that way we can make sure that action is actually taken.”

Alexis Wing of Boston, who also participated in last year’s march, was upbeat as she returned to Washington on Saturday.

“There were a lot more people last year because last year, (the official march) was in D.C.,” Wing said. “This year, it feels great to be back out here with a bunch of other badass women.”

Senate Panel Votes to Ban Bump Stocks

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A survivor of the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas helped persuade a Virginia Senate committee Monday to approve a bill outlawing bump stocks, a device that allows a rifle to mimic an automatic weapon.

After hearing from Henrico County resident Cortney Carroll, who was at the country music concert where 58 people were killed and 546 injured, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 11-4 for SB 1. It would prohibit Virginians from making, selling or possessing “any device used to increase the rate of fire of any semi-automatic firearm beyond the capability of an unaided person to operate the trigger mechanism of that firearm.”

Carroll, 40, recalled being at the Route 91 Harvest music festival when Stephen Paddock opened fire on 22,000 concertgoers. “The only way I could describe it is, it sounded like a machine gun,” she said. That’s because Paddock, who later killed himself, had fitted his rifles with bump stocks to fire at a rate of nearly 10 rounds per second.

“When I found out that just a regular person had changed a semi-automatic rifle into essentially a machine gun, it really hit me hard,” Carroll, who lives in Short Pump, said in an interview. “I had no idea that those things (bump stocks) even existed. So that’s when I knew that I needed to take a stand. I believe that I was saved for a reason, and I need to make a difference.”

Carroll, a mother of two, comes from a family of Republicans who enjoy hunting and support Second Amendment rights.

“I grew up in a household with hunters. My boyfriend’s a hunter. I have no problem with guns. I’m a Republican; I support gun rights,” she said. “Prior to this, I didn’t really know anything about bump stocks.”

Carroll said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety from the massacre. The first thing she does when she enters a room is to identify the exits – and ponder where she would hide if someone started shooting. Carroll said large crowds make her uncomfortable.

On the evening of Oct. 1, Carroll and her aunt were singing along to Jason Aldean when the first shots rang out. Everyone assured her they were fireworks. But seconds later, Carroll recalls hearing the rat-tat-tat sound of “machine gun fire you hear in movies.”

Carroll and her aunt crouched down and huddled closely, covered by other people who were attending the concert. Carroll recalls thinking, “This couldn’t happen to me – not now.”

After five rounds of shooting, as Paddock was reloading his weapons, Carroll said she and her aunt got up and ran. As they tried to find a path to safety, they hit a dead end. At that moment, Carroll’s aunt was grazed by a bullet above her eye. Seeing her aunt’s face dripping with blood is something that Carroll said still haunts her today.

Carroll’s boyfriend attended the Senate committee meeting to offer his support. Carroll had a small orange ribbon pinned to her shirt, symbolizing mass shooting awareness.

All six Democrats on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, along with five Republican members, voted for SB 1. Four Republican senators voted against the bill.

SB 1, which was introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee defeated:

  • SB 2, which would have made it illegal to carry a loaded firearm while under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.
  • SB 5, which would have required a background check for any firearm transfer. Currently, no checks are necessary for sales at gun shows and between private individuals.
  • SB 112, which would have added disability, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation to the state’s definition of a hate crime. Now, only offenses “motivated by racial, religious, or ethnic animosity” are considered hate crimes.

All six of the Democrats on the committee voted in favor of those bills, and all nine Republican members voted against it.

Afterward, Democratic senators criticized the Republican committee members for voting against background checks.

“We know that if we enact universal background checks, fewer law enforcement officers will be shot and killed, fewer intimate partners will be shot and killed, and there will be fewer gun-related suicides,” said Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun. “Gun violence is an epidemic, and the time has come to act if we are going to keep our communities safe.”

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