RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – A Huguenot High School graduate and his stepfather were killed Tuesday in a mass shooting outside Richmond’s Altria Theater that left several others hurt and sent new graduates and their families running from the scene.
In the first briefing after the shooting in Monroe Park, Richmond’s acting police chief shared early details about the shooting and victims around the crime scene.
The city’s mayor and school district’s superintendent gave their thoughts, reflecting on how an event meant to be celebratory turned deadly and pleading for an end to gun violence.
“This should not be happening anywhere,” Mayor Levar Stoney (D) told reporters less than two hours after the first shots were heard. “A child should be able to go to their graduation and walk out their graduation and enjoy the accomplishment with their friends and their families.”
Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras, still dressed in a black gown for the graduation, used the moment to call for an end to gun violence in the city. “I’m just tired of seeing people get shot, our kids get shot and I beg of the entire community to stop. To just stop.”
Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R) addressed the crowd of reporters after the briefing ended, calling out city leaders and pointing to “gangs” in remarks that Democrats said inserted politics into a tragedy before any details on the investigation were released.
“I was told to stay away but the people that I represent are not safe. They’re not safe in this city and we have to figure out why that is. This is not about law-abiding gun owners. This is about gangs,” Earle-Sears said. “This is about even if you took all the guns off the street from the law-abiding citizens, the others who mean harm, who mean to kill and mayhem, they’re going to have the guns.”
Richmond Interim Police Chief Rick Edwards said Wednesday morning that it was a “targeted” shooting against one of the victims, 18-year-old Shawn Jackson, who had an ongoing dispute with the alleged gunman for over a year. In total, Richmond police said seven people were shot.
Edwards added that “there is no information that we have that they are gang members” and that the suspect, who is facing two second-degree murder charges in the killing of Jackson and Jackson’s stepfather, Lorenzo Smith, could not have bought the gun legally due to his age but that details on how he got a handgun is unknown at this time.
“When do we say enough is enough? When do we say that? How many more people have to die before we say ‘You’re going to jail. We’re gonna lock you up and there’s not gonna be any bail’ so we can have safety in our communities,” Earle-Sears continued. “When does that happen? Who is in charge? Is that the mayor? Is that the chief? Who is that? I mean, let’s start naming names.”
Several Virginia Democrats went to Twitter to rebuke Earle-Sears’ remarks on Tuesday evening, pointing out that her campaign posters in 2021 showed her holding an assault-style rifle.
One of those Democrats, House Minority Leader Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth), told 8News that Earle-Sears chose “MAGA-coded language” used when addressing gun violence in communities of color.
“When there are mass shootings in other communities, there’s thoughts and prayers and talks about mental health,” Scott said in a Wednesday phone interview. “But when it’s an urban community, the first thing she does is start talking about gangs and criminals.”
Del. Scott pointed out that the suspect in Tuesday’s shooting doesn’t appear to have a criminal record, calling Earle-Sears out of touch for not believing that guns “are a problem in all of our communities.” According to online court records, the 19-year-old suspect does not have any prior misdemeanor or felony charges.
“She’s talking about other leaders. Does she not know that she is an elected leader, she is a heartbeat away from the governor’s seat,” Scott added, noting that Virginia’s lieutenant governor is first in the line of succession for the governor.
In a phone interview, Earle-Sears told 8News that her remarks were not political but a call to action for change in the city. She added that she never said, “anything was absolutely gang-related.”
“So, when did life, I would ask them [Democrats], become so flippant? Why isn’t life precious? And how could they have reduced this to a Democrat-Republican issue? That’s not what this is about. Is it only that that they care about? Is everything political for them? So, I would say to them we need to get to the problem,” Earle-Sears said Wednesday. “We need to find out why our children are shooting each other. Why this continues to happen?”
Scott called on Earle-Sears to rally Virginia House Republicans to pass “common-sense gun laws” if she’s concerned over safety, telling 8News that party leaders have no intention of passing additional restrictions after deciding not to pass recent Democratic-backed measures.
Scott noted that a bill requiring gun owners to safely store their firearms if a minor is living in the same household was tabled by Republicans and his efforts to ensure money for the state’s witness protection program also failed in the legislature.
Earle-Sears released a statement in which she said her “heart breaks for the senseless and cowardly act of violence last night that took the lives of a graduate and his father just moments after walking across the stage to accept his high school diploma.”
In her statement, Earle-Sears added that there have 33 homicides in Richmond in 2023 and that “Gang activity and other crimes have run virtually unchecked by a system that too often puts the desires of criminals over the rights of law-abiding families.”
Before answering questions, Earle-Sears said she wanted to ensure 8News would take her responses “in a wide perspective.” To do that, 8News has included her answers below:
“What I would answer is gang activity and violence are a problem in Richmond. That is no secret. And this is not an isolated incident. It is not as if there aren’t daily shootings, almost, in Richmond. It is not as if there aren’t people dying in Richmond as a result. This is not the first shooting and death in six months or the first shooting and death in a year. No, this is a just about ongoing activity here in Richmond. And so, the fact that it happened at a graduation is the only thing that’s different,” she said when asked for a response to Democratic criticism. “Although I’m sure it’s probably happened at others, but this was a boldface shooting.
“So, when did life, I would ask them, become so flippant? Why isn’t life precious? And how could they have reduced this to a Democrat-Republican issue? That’s not what this is about. Is it only that that they care about? Is everything political for them? So, I would say to them we need to get to the problem. We need to find out why our children are shooting each other. Why this continues to happen? And I’ve been hearing from Democrats, independents calling, texting, emailing to say they’re with me. But more importantly, they want things to change. Somebody has to rescue the people and I have been talking with and working with people in the community who some of them who are returning citizens, they’re formerly incarcerated and they’re trying to make things better. I’m working with them.
“Gang-related violence and other kinds of violence are happening all the time in Richmond. (Inaudible)…the investigation is ongoing and so, I never said anything was absolutely gang-related. I’m saying that there are gangs in Richmond. And I’m saying still that we have to get to the bottom of this, gang-related or not, why are our children killing each other? Why is life not precious? That’s what we have to figure out. And in the meantime, we have to hold our leaders accountable. It can’t be that people only care about their political future. This is not about politics. The people who every day have to deal with this, they don’t care, they want somebody to do something and that’s what this is about.”
UPDATE: This story was updated with quotes from 8News’ interview with Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, which came after publication and two hours after the designated deadline shared with her office.