WASHINGTON — Tim Kaine is a U.S. senator now, but he was governor of Virginia in April 2007, when the Virginia Tech shooting claimed 32 lives. So in the wake of Sunday’s mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which killed 49 people, Kaine tells WTOP that he and other Virginians “have so much scar tissue” when it comes to learning to recover.
Kaine said on Tuesday morning that he had learned two important lessons from the Virginia Tech shooting, which was the deadliest shooting incident in U.S. history until Sunday.
The first thing, he said, was to be in solidarity with people who have lost relatives and loved ones, and to listen to their pain.
“Often, there’s nothing you can say that will take it away, but they want to know that people are paying attention to them,” he said.
Second, he said: “You just have to resolve, very publicly, to learn everything you can about why the [incident] occurred, and resolve to fix everything you can to reduce the chance that it will ever happen again.”
Within three days, Kaine said, he impaneled an independent investigative commission and told them, “You look at this, and tell me everything that happened, everything that went wrong, and everything we can fix. And then I fixed the things I could.”
Working with the legislature, Kaine said, changes were made in areas such as campus safety, warning systems, mental health warnings and treatment standards. But one item on his list went unaddressed.
“Sadly, the one thing I really needed the legislature’s help on was to adopt a more comprehensive background check system,” Kaine said Tuesday. Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho “had been able to get a weapon that he shouldn’t have been able to purchase, because of a gap in the background record check system. But my legislature was unwilling to do it.”
The Senate hasn’t taken “any meaningful action” either, Kaine said. He recalled the April 2013 failure to pass universal background checks for gun purchases, in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, mass shooting that killed 26 people.
“We had the families of Newtown victims siting in the gallery, looking down at us, and we still couldn’t get enough votes to do the right thing — the thing the American public wanted us to do.”
He said he hopes Florida will take action and adds that in the Senate, “I hope we’ll have the backbone to take action this time.”
Kaine said it was ironic that one of the reactions to the Orlando shootings in Congress was a focus on the extent of shooter Omar Mateen’s possible ties to the Islamic State.
“President Obama commenced war against ISIL in August of 2014, and asked Congress to join him and state that this was a terrorist organization that the U.S. should use military action to stop. I’ve been trying to get Congress for two years to vote on it, and Congress won’t even take action against ISIL! Good Lord!”
Told that many people don’t have faith in the federal government’s ability to take constructive steps, Kaine said there was hope.
“Here’s the good news: States have been doing background checks too. And when they have, what the results show is that they become safer. So we don’t need to be hopeless about ‘Can we improve the situation?’ We can.”
“Nothing will eliminate the possibility of violence, but if you make the right moves, whether it be about guns, or mental health, or safety protocols … you make us safer. We just need some leaders who are willing to show some backbone and act, rather than just endlessly debate and throw labels at each other and do nothing.”
He said it won’t be easy to take steps to fix the problem of mass shooting violence, but that he’s determined.
“You often don’t get the thing you passionately want the first time you go after it,” Kaine said. “I’ve worked on things where it took five or six years to get what I hoped to get. And I don’t give up. I do not give up.”
He quoted the famous line from Samuel Beckett’s novel “The Unnamable”: “’[You] must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’ And that’s my attitude.”