Each time a mass shooting occurs in our country, the entire nation feels the shock. But when it hits close to home, the sense of devastation is exponentially greater. And so it was in Virginia Beach, on May 31, when a man who had just resigned from his city job entered Building 2 of the Municipal Center and killed 12 people before police shot and killed him.
Two weeks after the massacre, we sat down with Mayor Bobby Dyer in his office in a building next door to the crime scene to talk about the horrific event, the subsequent calls for stricter gun control and the work that needs to be done going forward.
I know you’ve given dozens of interviews about this, but I was wondering if you could start by taking me back to the moment you heard about the shooting.
As you know I’m a home-care physical therapist. I had just finished up with my last patient of the day, and I was getting ready to head home when I got a call from my office, and they said, “Bob, there’s an active shooter in Building 2.” A couple of minutes later, as I was heading that way, I got another call notifying me that there were three fatalities. A few minutes after that I got yet another call that there were now six fatalities—and by the time I got to the city manager’s office, the count was up to 10. People were sitting around in a state of shock. Our foundation was rocked. This was not supposed to be happening in Virginia Beach.
Shortly after that, though, we started rallying. We knew we had a professional duty to engage the public. Of course, we also had the process of identifying the victims and notifying the families and all the human factors that came into play. In addition to the victims we had hundreds of people in the building who witnessed this, so we had to take them into consideration too.
I will say this upfront: I’ve never been more proud of our city for the type of response that we had, from management to police. When you think about the heroism of those police officers, you realize that the horror could have been a lot worse. They actually had somebody on the scene within two minutes from the time the call went out. Then other police, firemen, EMS and sheriffs went into the building to get it evacuated and cleared out. There was a lot of heroism that day.
At first it was shock, and then we transitioned into grief, but over the weekend I had to continue reaching out. I went on CNN five times, as well as other news outlets. The main message was that we are engaged and are dealing with this—and we’re still a safe city. We’re the safest city for a city our size in the nation. To anyone who might argue with that, I say, take a look at the response of our police.
I’m telling you, Tom, what I was impressed with was not only the professionalism that we had, but the dignity and empathy and compassion that we had, and still have going forward.
Moving forward, how can the city heal, on the one hand, while keeping this alive, both to honor the victims and address the bigger issue? I ask that because it seems to me that a lot of times these shootings happen, there’s a flurry of discussion for two or three weeks, and then the story fades.
That ain’t gonna happen. You know, we always have the rapid response about gun control, and every time that happens it eventually gets politicized and polarized. A guy from CNN called me after the governor called for a special session [on gun violence], and I said, the focus right now is on the families. Let’s get through the funerals and try to minimize the emotion on this. When you make decisions at an emotional time, sometimes it’s not the best time.
That said, the other day I went to speak to a moms' group for gun safety. They respect the Second Amendment, but they are also promoters of safety measures. They’re a reasonable group—a good group to start at least having rational discussions about these things.
Nobody’s talking to each other. Tom, you’re a communicator by profession, so let me throw this to you. What has been your impression of the way we as a society have been communicating with each other over the last decade?
It’s horrible. In my lifetime, I don’t think it’s ever been worse.
And now with social media—there’s just a total lack of civility in the public square. Also, people don’t trust government anymore. This goes back a decade-plus, but it’s reaching new lows, given social media.
Even in the workplace, you often don’t find effective communication. You have people emailing somebody in the next cubicle. I’m also reminded of something my daughter told me about being at a party and people sitting on the same couch texting each other versus talking.
So when you have somebody who may be having some personal issues, you know, back in the day you really got to know your fellow worker, you would notice that someone wasn’t acting right and say, “Hey, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s going on?” And you would at least talk it through. We don’t have that human connection anymore.
Are you suggesting that the lack of interpersonal communication might explain what happened in this particular case?
Could be, but we don’t know. I understand that people want answers, and they want them now. But given the complexity and magnitude of what happened—and the multiple crime scenes in that building—it’s important to take time to go through personnel records to find out if there were any problems. It was alleged that he was about to be fired, and rumors spread, but none of that is really true.
Let me go back to my question about keeping this issue alive. Do you have a specific plan in place to ensure that this happens?
I think we have to have the discussion—and like I said, we have to get past the politics and polarization and figure out what we need as a society.
We have to bear in mind, for example—and I’m not saying this in a derogatory way—but nevertheless, some of the cities that have the highest rates of homicides are the cities that have the strictest gun controls. So where to find the balance, and then do what we’ve gotta do? That’s the question.
A lot of it comes down to the human capital. At Rock Church the other day, I made a statement that we just have to start being kinder to each other and embracing each other. I’m telling you right now, I’m heartened by the fact that so many people are coming together. Let me just backtrack a little to Something in the Water festival. There were many people who thought that was going to be just a disaster waiting to happen—and it didn’t. We came away from that weekend with such high energy and positivity. My attitude was how do we keep this going all year—that’s what I was working on.
Now all of a sudden we’ve lost all that momentum. Still, there are so many people engaged in a positive way. How do we harness that positivity and feeling of good will? You’re not going to solve this by stricter gun control. The Oklahoma bomber used fertilizer to do his evil deed. When people decide that they want to harm somebody they’re going to do it. But how do we defuse the situation?
I’m showing my age, but I was brought up during "Leave it to Beaver"’s first run in the ’50s. Now all of a sudden you turn on HBO and see all kinds of stuff. Then there are these video games where you get points for killing cops. It desensitizes people. There’s bullying that goes on in high school that people take to the workplace now. If that becomes part of the corporate culture, then it becomes part of the work environment.
What else do you think we can do to address this?
Well, I got a note from the mayor of Orlando where 47 people were killed in the Pulse nightclub. What I want to do is to come together in communication with the mayor of Charleston and the mayor of Vegas and so forth and find out what’s going on. We joined a fraternity that we never wanted to belong to. But now I’m thinking, what can we learn from each other as mayors?
The other night at the memorial at Old Dominion University, a woman came up to you and told you how the shooting had triggered her trauma from a decades-old assault, even though she was not in Building 2 and had no connection with any of the victims. That reminded me that the ripple effect of these things is enormous, going far beyond the families of the victims. Are there plans in place to do community outreach for people whom we don’t normally think of as victims because they weren’t in the building and weren’t related to any of the people who were shot?
Right now—and I’m not making excuses—but this Friday will only be two weeks since the shooting. It’s still relatively early on. We’ve got to be open to all the ramifications, but one of my first priorities is to restore the feeling that this is a safe city—that this was an anomaly, an unfortunate act of evil by one person. We’re going to try to get to the cause of that—what pushes people’s buttons. And I realize that we may never get that, but it’s important.
I’m well aware of the trauma, though. When I was still a wannabe, getting ready to run in 2003, I went through the citizens' police academy. I was on duty with a police officer the night that a pizza delivery driver ran a red light and killed two 6-year-olds. I was on that scene for four hours. I saw the cops and their professionalism. Then we went to a restaurant right after, and [some of those officers] started breaking down. I’m also reminded of a fireman I treated as a physical therapist—very upbeat guy. But one day he just broke down and said, “Bob, most people don’t realize, but people like me get PTSD—you know how many dead babies I’ve taken out of buildings over the years?”
But the thing is when police officers and firemen go to work it’s not necessarily assumed that they’re going to come home. When somebody in Building 2 goes to work, they assume they’re going to go home. But that didn’t happen.
Several days after the shooting, Governor Northam called for a special legislative session to address gun violence. Have you talked with him about this?
He and I are going to be getting together. I was really impressed that he came down to visit the hospitals. I’ve also talked with Congresswoman [Elaine] Luria who came to a number of the funerals, and she and I are building bridges. We’ve got to put all this party nonsense aside and start focusing on what we’re supposed to be doing as a government.
Polarization, while generalized these days, is sharper surrounding certain issues like gun control. Do you feel that there is the possibility of compromise on legislation?
Well, again, to effectively compromise people have to be willing to sit down and talk with each other. How do we take this atrocity and turn it into a positive somehow? What reasonably can be done? I think community building is the key. I want more people coming to city council meetings. I want more interaction. So many people just feel disenfranchised from their government. We’ve got to start valuing people.