After a friend was one of the estimated 13,393 people shot and killed in America last year, Batesville resident Jay Varner wrote to eight political representatives about the increasing threat of gun violence. Last month, he received a handwritten response from the president of the United States.
The August 26 on-air slayings of WDBJ7 reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward made Varner feel helpless, enraged and upset, he says. Last spring, he met Parker and her then-boyfriend and later fiancé, Chris Hurst, at Roanoke’s Hollins University where Varner was a visiting professor. One of Varner’s previous students, a current WDBJ7 employee, had attended a reading that Varner was giving, and brought the couple with her.
“We kind of immediately hit if off,” Varner says. “Alison was such a vibrant person.”
So they kept in touch on Facebook, and months later, when he learned that two WDBJ7 employees were murdered while filming a live segment at Smith Mountain Lake, he immediately thought of the reporter, her fiancé and his former student—all three of who he knew worked the morning shift at the station.
“I started to shake and nearly fell to my knees when I saw the location,” he wrote in the letter addressed “Dear Mister President.”
Varner, who teaches classes at UVA, PVCC and JMU, says he wrote to ask what he should tell his students when they ask what today’s leaders are doing to end gun violence.
“What are you going to do about this? Have you now seen enough of your constituents gunned down?” Varner wrote. “Have you sent enough condolences and issued enough statements expressing sadness over such tragedies? Have you seen enough grieving friends and family walk shell shocked through the aftermath of bloodshed?”
Some representatives responded, including Senator Creigh Deeds, who was stabbed several times in the face by his mentally ill son who shot and killed himself minutes later, but the only person to answer Varner’s question directly was President Barack Obama.
After opening the letter—written on a cream-colored, high-quality card with an azure letterhead at the top—Varner says, “First, of course, I was shocked,” and also “surprised that the president of the United States had responded to something I had written.”
The president reads 10 hand-picked letters in the Oval Office each night, according to a statement on the White House’s website by Mike Kelleher, the director of presidential correspondence. Obama sometimes chooses to write back.
In his response to Varner, Obama wrote:
“Thank you for your letter, and your passion. Tell your students that their President won’t stop doing everything he can to stop gun violence. And don’t fill them with cynicism—change isn’t easy, but it requires persistence and hope.”
Varner says he especially appreciates the note about not being cynical.
“The more we speak up, the harder this message is to ignore,” he says. “And that’s something in the president’s response that more than just my students need to hear: Change takes hope, it takes persistence, and it means we can’t give up doing what’s right.”
On March 13, Hurst and Parker’s parents appeared on “CBS Sunday Morning” for a 90-minute show dedicated to gun violence in America.
“When my daughter, Alison, was murdered on live television, I pledged that I was going to do whatever it takes to reduce gun violence in this country,” Andy Parker said in a speech just days after her death. On “CBS Sunday Morning,” he said he believes universal background checks should be mandated for those who wish to purchase guns, and gun show loopholes that allow private buyers to purchase firearms without a background check or a record of the sale should be closed.
Vester Lee Flanagan II, the disgruntled former station employee who killed Parker and Ward and later himself, did pass a background check and purchased his gun legally.
“There are people that say, ‘Well, nothing would’ve prevented her death,’” Varner says about Parker. “Okay, maybe so. But is that a reason to not try and save the next life? Even if it’s one life?”
Click to enlarge President Barack Obama’s response.