National Press Club

Two figures in Virginia Tech shooting -- a survivor and a reporter -- revisit the massacre at NPC event

April 5, 2019 | By Eleanor Herman | elherman@aol.com

Journalist Thomas Kapsidelis and Kristina Anderson, whose lives intersected at the Virginia Tech mass shooting 12 years ago, discuss the massacre at a National Press Club Headliners Book Event April 4.

Journalist Thomas Kapsidelis and Kristina Anderson, whose lives intersected at the Virginia Tech mass shooting 12 years ago, discuss the massacre at a National Press Club Headliners Book Event April 4.

Photo/Image: Alan Kotok

“I belong to a club no one wants to belong to,” said Kristina Anderson at a National Press Club Headliners Book Event April 4. She’s among the survivors of the mass shooting 12 years ago at Virginia Tech.

As the anniversary of the massacre approaches, Anderson reflected on the shooting -- the largest in history at a college campus -- at the Club event along with former Richmond Times-Dispatch journalist Thomas Kapsidelis.

Their lives intersected on April 16, 2007. Andersen was in French class in Norris Hall at the Blacksburg, Va., school when the shots rang out. The shooter wounded her three times before turning the gun on himself. Eleven of her classmates in that room died. Kapsidelis covered the tragedy, which saw 32 dead and 17 injured.

Afterward, Kapsidelis focused on reporting mass shootings and their aftermath and eventually left his newspaper job to write a book about them: "After Virginia Tech, Guns, Safety, and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings."

“I wanted to give voice to survivors, families, and communities, to tell their story,” Kapsidelis said of the book. “I wanted to explore the history, the healing, the resilience and accountability.”

Anderson, who underwent a lengthy recovery, went on to found the Koshka Foundation for safe schools and to travel the country advocating for school safety measures.

“Schools can be vulnerable places if not protected,” she said. “Many people say, ‘That could never happen here.’ But no spaces are invulnerable. Access is an important question. How do we prevent shooters from gaining access?”

Kapsidelis pointed out that despite the ever-growing list of school shootings, campuses around the country have made important changes to safety protocols, including putting threat assessment teams in place. “There were so many missed signals at Virginia Tech,” he said. “These days, when we see an angry Facebook page there are ways to connect that person with counseling and mental health resources.”

“You never know what you prevented,” Anderson added.

Still, Kapsidelis said, gun violence cannot be blamed exclusively on mental health problems. Because access to weapons is a major factor, he advocates for universal background checks for those seeking to purchase a gun. Anderson pointed out, however, that the weapons used in many mass shootings have come either from the home or the shooter had no criminal record. In such cases, she said, universal background checks would not prevent a tragedy.

Anderson advised journalists interviewing mass shooting victims to show sensitivity. “It’s the worst day of their life,” she said of victims. “Give their feelings some consideration. Show empathy. And follow up with them. I felt used in some interviews. Journalists even gave fake names to try to get into the hospital to interview me.”

She added that her memories of the shooting are more painful in the month of April and after new mass shootings.

The audience included parents of Virginia Tech victims and survivors of the 2013 Washington Navy Yard shooting. One audience member asked how New Zealand could enact changes to gun laws so quickly after the March 15 Christchurch mosque shooting, while few such changes have been made in the U.S. in the 12 years since the Virginia Tech tragedy.

“The big difference,” replied Kapsidelis, “ is that New Zealand has no constitutional right to gun ownership.”

When asked what inspires her, Anderson said it was her three siblings, two of whom were not born in 2007. “I look at them,” she said, “and realize the importance of school safety training. My family inspires me, reminds me that life is beautiful. My siblings give me hope that after an attack there is always joy and kindness and love and you just need to seek it out.”

Club Vice President Michael Freedman moderated the event.