The Death Toll From Mass Shootings Continues to Rise. These Local Moms Have Had Enough.
For some members of the Arlington chapter of Moms Demand Action, it's personal.
*Some sources in this story requested pseudonyms for privacy.
Amid the heat of political division and impassioned feelings about guns, Susie Paul-de Leede and Ashley Linden* have managed to find common ground.
A Canadian citizen who moved to the U.S. 20 years ago, Paul-de Leede, 54, has always struggled to understand Americans’ penchant for firearms—even before her father-in-law was gunned down in his Lorton living room while drinking a glass of milk in his pajamas.
Linden, 43, is a mother of three whose handgun is locked in a biometric safe in her Arlington home.
Both women are members of the fast-growing Arlington chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (MDA), an advocacy organization that’s pushing for universal background checks and other gun safety legislation. In addition to lobbying lawmakers, MDA members speak locally at PTA meetings, places of worship and community events to teach people about gun safety and how to recognize the warning signs of suicide.
“Mothers and others” are welcome, says Beth Fine, 42, head of the Arlington chapter. It’s an inclusive group, though “that Mama Bear desire to protect your kids is the soul of the organization.”
Moms Demand Action is bigger than Arlington. Created in 2012 as a Facebook group in response to Sandy Hook, the grassroots effort now has chapters in all 50 states (including 22 in Virginia) and the District of Columbia. It’s since become part of Everytown for Gun Safety, a nationwide gun violence prevention effort founded and largely funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Linden sees the group as supporting commonsense ways to protect people—especially children. When she calls politicians to press the MDA agenda, she mentions she’s a gun owner.
“We’re aiming to meet in the middle to have a conversation about keeping our kids safe,” she says. “There’s a huge wall. It’s on both sides to break those misconceptions down.”
Shawn Poulin agrees that communication is important if citizens on all sides of the gun debate are to resolve their differences. As the owner of NOVA Armory, an Arlington gun shop near Fort Myer, he says he has invited members of the moms group to come see how gun sales happen. No one has taken him up on the offer yet.
A retired Marine Corps marksmanship instructor who lives in Ballston, Poulin, 47, disagrees with MDA on several key issues. And as a person of Native American and Central American heritage, he defies the white conservative gun owner stereotype.
“Their hearts are in the right place. But it’s radical,” he says of the group, which he runs into at community events.
Limiting magazine sizes—a policy position supported by MDA—is one approach Poulin views as ineffective. Gun owners wanting to buy larger magazines in states that forbid them can simply cross state lines, he says, noting that Marylanders flock to his shop to stock up on what they can’t buy at home. “That’s an example of how knee-jerk laws don’t work.”
He also takes issue with so-called “red flag” bills that would make it easier to deny or confiscate guns from someone whom a family member, friend or acquaintance has described to authorities as a danger to themselves or others. Gun dealers already have the discretion to turn down a potential buyer for just about any reason—“if you have a bad haircut”—Poulin says, though they most often do so because the would-be buyer smells of drugs, is intoxicated, or seems to be buying for a friend waiting in the parking lot.
Poulin sees the red flag measures as an overreach, worrying that a jilted lover or someone else with bad information could lodge false claims, causing a lawful owner to lose their Second Amendment rights. But he says he can also see the need for buyers to disclose more information about mental health. “Both sides need to come up with a solution,” he says.
Ask MDA members what prompted them to get involved and you’re apt to hear a litany of tragedies. Virginia Tech. Newtown. Parkland. Las Vegas.
Sometimes it’s personal. Fine felt the brush of gun violence in 2006 when one of her softball teammates, a “nice architect” from Arlington named Damon Ward, was killed outside Ben’s Chili Bowl in the District. Ward was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was hit by a stray bullet when a nearby argument over a parking space turned violent.
Six years later, Fine had a 3-year-old at home and had just given birth to twins when news broke of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. By the time a gunman opened fire at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in 2015, she had had enough. She saw gun safety as a critical issue with obvious solutions.
“It happens so much and so often, just the cumulative effect of all of it energized me, pushed me into getting involved,” says the Lyon Park resident. “Nobody has time for this. Nobody in Arlington has time for anything. But we are making time.”
“If your kids know where the Christmas presents are, they also know where the firearms are.”
Half of the mass shootings in American history have occurred in the past 10 years, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime.
In 2018, eight mass shootings (shootings that resulted in four or more deaths) claimed the lives of 71 people and left another 51 injured, according to analysis by The Washington Post. As of August 5, another five mass shootings in 2019 resulted in 56 fatalities and 63 injuries.
Northern Virginia is not immune to gun violence. Since 2014, Arlington County Police have investigated 15 homicides, two of which were determined to be officer-involved justified shootings. Of the other 13, six involved firearms, including a fatal altercation on July 1 inside the Pentagon City mall parking garage. Fairfax County saw 32 homicides involving firearms over the same time period.
Celia Slater’s two children are grown now, but she remembers being afraid for them. “I didn’t want them growing up in a world where they were worried about gun violence in schools, the workplace, places of worship, the bus…,” says the Ashton Heights mom, 61.
When Slater joined MDA four years ago, the Arlington chapter had a dozen active members. Today, as the communications contact for the group, she maintains a mailing list of about 800. She estimates some 250 are actively engaged in advocacy and education efforts.
Susie Paul-de Leede’s family still bears scars from the murder of her father-in-law, a retired economist for the World Bank. Shortly after midnight in March of 2016, a killer stood on the deck of Johan de Leede’s Lorton home and shot more than 15 rounds from a semi-automatic through a back window, killing the 83-year-old, and then slipped away into the night. The victim’s wife of 55 years and three other visiting family members from the Netherlands were also home at the time, roused from sleep by the crack of gunfire.
Three years later the case remains unsolved. He was the “guiding compass” of the family, says Paul-de Leede, who lives with her immediate family in Arlington’s Waverly Hills neighborhood. She remembers how he showed up unfailingly at his granddaughters’ soccer games and took them out for ice cream afterward to talk strategy.
Her older daughter, now 18, hasn’t set foot on a soccer field since. Her younger daughter, 17, lives with the worry of not knowing why their family was targeted. Both girls honored their grandfather by organizing a Students Demand Action chapter at H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program.
“Every day people are being killed in their own homes and communities. It’s outrageous,” says Paul-de Leede, a marketing professional for a global nonprofit. (She is also a former Arlington Magazine staff member.) She joined MDA, in part, as a way of working through the grief. “I don’t want anyone else to go through the pain our family has had to go through,” she says. “This is my way to honor my father-in-law, to give me purpose.”
In Arlington, MDA’s community outreach focuses on educating the public about safe storage and handling of firearms, and also about how to recognize individuals who are at risk of self-harm.
Two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides. The death rate for suicide attempts with firearms is nearly 83 percent, making guns more lethal than any other method, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
Storing guns locked and unloaded—and separately from ammunition—is crucial in preventing both accidents and suicides, stress MDA advocates.
“Our kids have no impulse control,” says MDA chapter leader Fine. “That’s not their fault. It’s where they are developmentally, so we have to keep our guns locked up so they aren’t in danger. If your kids know where the Christmas presents are, they also know where the firearms are.”
As a mother of young kids, Fine says she initiates the uncomfortable conversations. Before playdates or visits to family members, she asks whether firearms in the house are locked up tight and stored apart from ammunition.
She’s crusading for other parents to do the same. Arlington is full of military and law enforcement families and plenty of others who have guns. People who don’t own guns too often assume no one does, and vice versa, she says.
Fellow MDA member Linden, whose kids are also elementary school age, tells the parents of any children visiting her home for playdates that she has dogs, nuts and—oh yes—a gun (in a safe that can only be unlocked with a fingerprint).
“My ideal universe is where it’s as natural as asking about food allergies,” Linden says. “There are no judgments, [as in], ‘Are you one of them?’ ” In turn, she asks about guns before sending her kids to other homes. “It is awkward, even as a gun owner. It feels intrusive, but then I think, Wait, this is my kid’s life. How can we expect our kids to make good decisions about firearms if adults aren’t talking?”
“She tells the parents of any children visiting for playdates that she has dogs, nuts and–oh yes–a gun (in a safe that can only be unlocked with a fingerprint).”
This spring, the Arlington chapter of MDA planted a Hope Garden of flowers in Courthouse to honor victims and survivors of violence. The group is nonpartisan, but it has worked to elect candidates who support its policy positions—which include universal background checks, limits on magazine sizes, red flag laws and bans on bringing firearms onto school grounds.
In the lead-up to the 2018 election, the Arlington chapter awarded a “Gun Sense Candidate Distinction” to both Rep. Don Beyer (a Democrat) and his Republican opponent, Thomas Oh. MDA members also campaigned for Democrat Jennifer Wexler, a proponent of stricter gun laws who won a congressional seat in an upset against former Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock.
Fine calls MDA “a more moderate organization. We’re not trying to take away anyone’s guns. We’re working hard on what’s achievable and will respect the Second Amendment and keep people safe. It’s hard to argue [against] a lot of our issues if you take a deep breath.”
A majority of Americans may well agree. In an October 2018 Gallup poll, about 61 percent of respondents nationwide said they favored stricter gun laws—a number that’s been inching upward over the last decade.
A similar Gallup poll in March 2018 found that 92 percent of the public believes all gun sales should be subject to background checks, including private sales and those at gun shows. Public opinion seems to be largely aligned with the group’s policy positions.
“The problem,” Fine says, “is we don’t have a majority of legislators on our side.”
After years of stalemate in Congress, activists seeking tougher gun laws have recently refocused their efforts on state legislatures. Virginia has not taken active steps to tighten its gun restrictions (during a July special session called by Gov. Ralph Northam in the wake of the Virginia Beach Municipal Center shooting, both chambers of the state legislature voted to table the issue until after the November election). Nevertheless, gun safety advocates say they have achieved some success in keeping the tide from going in the other direction in the Commonwealth.
For instance, efforts to allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit—which the moms group has lobbied against—have repeatedly failed.
“It feels so relentless at times,” Fine says, “but…if we’re not doing it, that’s when the gun extremists get a foothold. We’re building ourselves up to be a counterweight to the extremists.”
Philip Van Cleave, president of the gun-rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League, sees Moms Demand Action as the extremists. “It’s a gun control group with a different name—gun safety,” says Van Cleave, 67, a resident of Chesterfield, Virginia. He often runs into activists wearing MDA T-shirts in Richmond when both sides are lobbying lawmakers. “Their version of safety is to take away guns from everyone.”
“They haven’t taken away my gun,” counters MDA member Linden. “Gun owners are part of Moms Demand Action. I don’t think we’re radical.”
Like gun shop owner Poulin, Van Cleave vehemently opposes red flag bills, wary that such legislation would lead to guns being revoked—without due process—from people who don’t deserve it. He says such measures could also endanger police officers tasked with confiscating guns from gun owners.
Van Cleave also believes firearms should be allowed in schools and on university campuses. The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, which left 33 dead, happened in the wake of a legislative defeat that he feels could have made a difference. Had concealed gun carriers been allowed on campus, he argues, they could have stepped in and the death toll might have been lower.
Arlington MDA member Slater, who has buttonholed lawmakers in Richmond and the U.S. Capitol, disagrees. She says the slow pace of change is “super frustrating,” particularly as the nationwide death toll from gun violence continues to rise. (As this issue went to press, news broke of two more shootings, in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.)
Volunteering “gives me a way to feel as though I am doing something,” she says. “I’m not just pacing around in my kitchen feeling helpless.”
If someone else has ideas about how to keep kids and communities safer, she’d like to open a conversation. “That’s what this is about. The hope we can find common ground to save lives.”
Journalist Tamara Lytle writes about politics, people, parenting and other topics.