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State chapter of moms' advocacy group still going strong

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The death toll has risen steadily in the U.S. in recent years: the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre that resulted in 32 fatalities, the 2012 theatre shooting in Aurora, Colo., that killed 12 people, and the Sandy Hook shooting last year, in which 20 children and six educators lost their lives.

For one organization, the tragedies highlight an issue that has divided people for decades: whether the sale of guns and ammunition should be regulated, and to what degree the Second Amendment gives people the "right to bear arms."

According to Dee Price Childers, leader of the West Virginia chapter of the national organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, tragedies like Sandy Hook should serve to remind parents that the climate in America has allowed unprecedented gun access, and a dearth of background checks for those purchasing guns and ammunition means that nearly anyone can own a gun.

"After the Sandy Hook disaster, I think it was a wake-up call to a lot of people," Childers said. "Being a mother of three myself, I looked into Moms Demand Action and found that I was in line with their goals."

Moms Demand Action was formed last December in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings. The shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, had been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, and had refused to speak to his mother for three months prior to the shooting. He also barred her from entering his room, where he had blacked out the windows and hung a poster detailing a list of the worst mass shootings in history, in order, by the number of deaths. He also was believed to have been obsessed with researching and correcting Wikipedia articles about mass shootings, according to the Hartford Courant.

In the wake of the tragedy, many media outlets and organizations questioned whether Lanza was mentally unstable, but for Childers, that question overlooks another facet of the problem -- whether those with a history of mental illness or crime are able to purchase guns and ammo without question.

"We're not anti-Second Amendment or anti-guns -- we're just in favor of common-sense gun laws," Childers said. "Our No. 1 priority is requiring background checks for all gun and ammunition purchases, which should be common sense."

The organization, which has more than 125,000 members nationwide, has worked toward enacting legislation that would require background checks for those purchasing guns or ammunition. Moms Demand Action recently announced a plan to merge with another group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, another national organization with more than 1,000 mayors in 46 states, as well as 1.5 million registered supporters. West Virginia is one of four states that do not have a mayor pledged as a member of the group.

"Together, we will continue the momentum for new and stronger solutions  to lax gun laws, loopholes, and policies that jeopardize the safety of  American children and families," said Kim Russell, national director of outreach for Moms Demand Action. "The majority of Americans support these  laws -- if we join together and use our voices and votes, we will be unstoppable."

Russell, the victim of a robbery and shooting that happened in Atlanta just days after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting and took the life of her friend, a high school teacher, said the merger would allow the organization to reach more people and create more awareness of the problems that exist in U.S. law.

"Gun violence is a problem that won't be solved until we get laws on  the books that will protect all communities," she said.  "We are bringing together a broad and diverse coalition of Americans -- from mayors to moms, law enforcement to faith leaders, gun owners and survivors -- who are committed to getting it done."

Childers said one of the main barriers to preventive legislation is the level of lobbying in favor of unregulated gun sales. The National Rifle Association spent a record amount of money on lobbying in 2013, spending roughly $800,000 on lobbying in the first quarter - more than any year previous, according to The Center for Public Integrity.

"People who profit from easy access to guns are controlling the conversation; they're out their 'defending' the Second Amendment, but really, they're pursuing their own agenda to make money from gun sales," she said. "It's almost to the point where you can't have a conversation about it."

The state chapter of Moms Demand Action met with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., earlier this year to discuss their goals. Manchin introduced legislation in April to expand background checks, but the bill was defeated in the Senate.

For Childers, the fact that a mass shooting has not occurred in a school in West Virginia does not rule out the possibility.

"It could certainly happen anywhere there is easy access to guns. Even though West Virginia hasn't had a situation like the ones in Colorado or Connecticut, we certainly have our share of gun deaths," she said.

Childers said those interested in joining the organization can visit its Facebook page or go to the national website, www.momsdemandaction.org, and click "join" under the "Take Action" tab to connect to a local chapter.

"We want to let people know that we're out there, and that moms are concerned about the dangers of guns in this country and want action to be taken," she said.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.

 


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