ANNANDALE, Va. — The question hovered around the suburban government center, though it was never directly asked. There was no need.

It was spoken in the emblems that both sides carried. The members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League had their handguns; some sported one on each hip. The parents of the murdered Virginia Tech students brought their children’s pictures; the cameras had captured the energy that radiated from their smiles.

What is a community? How does it reconcile what seems unreconcilable?

“This is enough to tell you why I’m here,” said Joe Samaha, holding a poster-sized photo of his daughter, Reema, who was among those murdered in last month’s campus massacre.

She was in the same French class as Mary Read, whose parents, Peter and Cathy, stood alongside Samaha as the members of the gun-rights group filed into the community room of the Mason District Government Center, a complex that includes a police station. The league had come to celebrate its success in getting the Virginia Legislature to crack down not on guns, but on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — because the mayor used private undercover agents to expose suspicious sales after the city traced guns used in New York crimes to dealers in Virginia.

“Our daughter died a month ago,” Cathy Read said, her eyes drooping and wet. “We live in Annandale. She graduated from Annandale High School last year.”

What is a community?

The question arose when the gun-rights group sought to use the community room to celebrate passage of the anti-Bloomberg law, which bans future undercover operations of the type practiced by New York agents. For a decade, Fairfax County authorities have tried, and failed, to get the Legislature to ban carrying guns in such public buildings.

The group had intended to raffle off two guns during the gathering, an effort to raise money to help the accused dealers pay legal bills stemming from New York’s lawsuits against them. But that ran afoul of state gambling regulations, so the guns were given away in a free lottery.

And the party overflowed last Thursday night, just a five-minute drive from Mary Read’s Annandale High. It had been postponed from its initial date, which was during the week that Virginia and Fairfax County were reeling from the tragedy. Five of the murdered students had graduated from the county’s public schools, as did two of those injured. The gunman, Seung Hui Cho, also was a Fairfax County public high school graduate.

“I’m sorry for their loss, but this is my neighborhood, too,” said Andrew Curry of Mount Vernon, who milled around outside with the other men carrying pistols before the party began. He was a few steps away from where the mourning parents stood. “I live in Virginia. I live in Fairfax County. I don’t know what else to say. You can’t stop standing up for what you believe.”

The festivities were buoyant. The room exploded with applause and whoops at each mention of how Bloomberg wasn’t welcome in Virginia; how the group would remember at election time the local politicians who’d maneuvered to thwart their meeting in a public facility; how what this country needs is more guns, not fewer. “Guns in the hands of decent, law-abiding citizens is a good thing,” said league president Philip Van Cleave. “In my opinion, you can’t have too many of those kinds of guns.”

Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, had been a law-abiding citizen. He was able to purchase his arsenal because an order for his involuntary mental health treatment wasn’t in the database used for background checks. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine has ordered that such reports be entered. But there is no way to track the millions of mentally disturbed individuals who have never received treatment — voluntary or not — and so are law-abiding citizens who can become purchasers of guns.

“There’s a right to bear arms,” Cathy Read said softly. “There’s a right to go to class and be safe and to live. Mary had a right to do that.”

Neither Virginia Tech nor any of the fallen students were mentioned during the gun-rights celebration. The only student to be recognized, and warmly applauded, was Andrew Dysart, a 25-year-old junior at George Mason University. He is organizing a chapter of Students for Concealed Carry. The group wants to change rules that prevent adult college students from carrying weapons on campus.

If you want to know why the gun debate is so bitter, look inside the community room of the Mason District Government Center. There you could find plenty of guns, but no sense of decency to bind a community.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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