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Why the Virginia Beach Shooting Hits Home

The attack, which killed nearly a dozen municipal employees in my hometown, is a reminder that mass shootings can happen anywhere.

Virginia Beach shooting
American flags served as part of a makeshift memorial in front of the municipal building where a longtime city employee opened fire on Friday.
(AP/Patrick Semansky)
I did not know any of the victims, but their names—once the names were released—rang so familiar. Mostly common Anglo-Saxon surnames, like my own: Brown, Gallagher, Nixon, Gayle, Cox, Williams, with a few of more varied ethnic origin among them. “Gusev” stood out. 

I had wandered the same halls where these people worked when I was a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot in the 1990s, my first newspaper job. Indeed, I had grown up with people like this, because Virginia Beach isn’t just where I started my career. It’s my hometown. 

Of course you’ve read the news stories by now: On Friday, a disgruntled employee of the Public Utilities department opened fire in the Virginia Beach Municipal Center, killing 12 of his colleagues and wounding several others. Eleven of the people who were killed were civil servants; one was a local contractor visiting the permitting office.

One thing that may not have come across in the news stories is that the municipal complex has an unusual location. It sits far out in in the country, although the subdivisions this city, the largest in Virginia, are edging ever closer. When the sprawling Princess Anne County merged with the tiny town of Virginia Beach in 1963 to form a new city, it was decided to keep the heart of government at the old county courthouse, even though it was a long way away from everything, back then. 

As a reporter covering City Hall with a strong interest in urban planning, I spent untold hours in the Public Utilities offices, although I hung out more in the Planning Department nearby. All were in the brick, neo-Colonial architecture that’s often favored in Virginia. 

Where I spent my time even more regularly was the chambers of the City Council, covering their meetings. Over the years as a reporter, I became close to Barbara Henley, who like me loved urban planning. In 1990 when she was voted out of office for a four-year stretch, she went back to school and got a masters in urban studies from the local university, Old Dominion. Then voters returned her to office. 

Amazingly, she is still a city councilwoman today, having first been elected in 1978. She is about as local as you can get. She runs a nearby farm, renowned in the area for its fruit. My adolescent son picked strawberries there on a recent visit in April. 

Henley was there at Friday’s shooting and has been quoted in many of the news stories about it. She had gone to pick up the council agenda, per her routine—she has always been known for her rigor—when she heard what turned out to be gunfire and was told to get down. “I was scared to death,” she said. 

We are all scared to death, I believe, every time one of these terrible and nonsensical shootings occur. My first thought when I heard the news of this one was, “Now it comes home.” 

I did not particularly fear for my 94-year-old mother, or my oldest sister, both of whom live in Virginia Beach. They were unlikely to be down in the south end of the city, at the municipal complex, far from their homes at the “north end.” But I was nonetheless worried, and I was relieved to hear from both that they were okay. 

For those of us who inhabit the world of local government, the Virginia Beach shooting hits home in yet another way. Seeing dedicated public servants gunned down in their place of work adds another dimension of sadness to an already unspeakably tragic event—just as it did in December 2015 when a gunman opened fire at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif. All but one of the 14 victims in that attack were county employees. 

But of course the truth is that we’re all in the same boat. We’re all waiting. Waiting for the time one of these shootings touches us personally, involving someone we love. Now one has come home to me, too close for comfort. I passionately hope that is not the case for everyone else. But sadly, I know that unless we take effective action, that will be case, and sooner rather than later. 

Zach Patton -- Executive Editor. Zach joined GOVERNING as a staff writer in 2004. He received the 2011 Jesse H. Neal Award for Outstanding Journalism
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