Amid 2A furor in Virginia Beach, a quiet memorial for those lost to gun violence

Visitors are shown at a temporary memorial to gun violence at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, amid ongoing debate about gun rights in a city that in 2019 suffered a mass shooting here at the center. Shirts symbolized people lost each day to gun violence and carried messages. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Ed. — This story appeared in print on Jan. 17, 2020. It was archived in December 2020.


COURTHOUSE — On Monday, Jan. 6, hundreds of gun rights supporters showed up at City Hall to urge the City Council to pass a symbolic resolution in support of Second Amendment rights, a message to the new state legislative majority working on gun reform.

A divided City Council declared Virginia Beach, the city whose municipal center was home to a mass shooting that left 12 people dead and four wounded, a “Second Amendment Constitutional City.” 

Suzanne Saltisiak was somewhere else.

She and some of her friends and family members bought tee shirts and stripped the metal skeletons free from cardboard political campaign signs. The next morning, Saltisiak placed messages on a municipal center lawn. They told stories about the cost of gun violence.

“This is what it looks like,” Saltisiak said on Tuesday, Jan. 7, standing along Princess Anne Road.

Behind her, 10 rows of different colored tee shirts, some of them child sized, stretched over metal frames. There were 100 shirts in all that made a memorial resembling a cemetery to reflect the number of people who die gun-related deaths daily across the U.S.

Saltisiak, a clinical social worker with 10 years in private practice and 20 years experience in counseling children and adults, said she strongly supports the Second Amendment.

“I have friends and family members who are gun owners,” Saltisiak said. “I don’t want to take anyone’s guns away. But we have to talk about safety. We need to redirect the conversation, because this isn’t an either/or proposition. After people have a conversation with me, very often they walk away agreeing.”

According to statistics gathered by law enforcement and public health agencies, Virginia Beach holds the second-highest gun related suicide rate in the state, topping the list in 2016. Saltisiak stretched teal tee shirts over the frames to represent that point.

Firearms are the first leading cause of death of children and teens in Virginia. Yellow tee shirts showed that.

In Virginia, 83 percent of Virginia domestic violence/intimate partner deaths are gun-related. Purple tee shirts for those.

White shirts filled out the rest, representing homicide and undetermined gun deaths, where Virginia also ranks higher than the national average, with the majority of those in Norfolk, Newport News and Richmond.

“I wanted something visual,” Saltisiak said. “Something people can connect with.”

And the temporary memorial was a place where they could talk, and not just about the politics or their differences. “I saw after the shooting that, no matter where people stood on the issue, people were hurting,” she said. “I know how to deal with that.” 

Saltisiak’s father, Rick Frailing, and a friend, Pat Gadzinski, were with her for much of the day, while visitors came by to leave flowers or write names in a book Saltisiak provided for loved ones or friends who had died in gun violence.

City Councilmember Sabrina Wooten, who represents the Centerville District, stood on the sidewalk viewing the memorial that Tuesday afternoon.

“It really brings tears to my eyes,” she said. “I feel the pain that exists from gun violence here. And just to see the different colors just brings back memories of lives lost. Any time there’s a life lost, it’s very tragic.”

The night before, she had listened to almost 90 people speak, some yelling or emotional, at the podium in the City Council chamber. Some were armed with handguns on their hips. Most wore round orange stickers affixed to coats and jackets, proclaiming “Guns Save Lives.”

Seven months to the day after a remembrance at Rock Church for the victims of the municipal center mass shooting, City Council voted 6-4 in favor of declaring Virginia Beach a Second Amendment Constitutional City. Wooten, who said she is a Second Amendment supporter, was disappointed with the decision. 

Hours after seeing Saltisiak’s display, Wooten would sit down with her colleagues in another meeting at City Hall. They listened to residents for the second night, and they discussed her resolution to ban guns from public buildings. 

At the end of the night, she would withdraw the resolution, despite a poll she cited reflecting that 67 percent of Beach residents supported a public building gun ban. She didn’t feel her resolution had support from some members of council.

Speaking at the memorial, she appreciated Saltisiak’s clear-eyed approach.

“You know, healing has to take place,” Wooten said. “You know that process has begun, but there’s still a long road ahead to healing. I think part of the way we can do that is by remembering those that we’ve lost and also having those difficult conversations.”

That’s Saltisiak’s biggest goal. She felt moved to create the memorial as a way for people to have those discussions, knowing what’s at stake. “Whatever I can do to protect people,” she said, “that’s what it’s about.”

Suzanne Saltisiak organized the memorial at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center with the help of family and friends. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

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