In the aftermath of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Karen Mallard took a grinder to her husband’s new AR-15. She sawed it in half to make a point about gun control in a campaign video that went viral.
“Gun violence is real, but I don’t want it to happen here — where we live — so we’ve got to do some things to stop it,” Mallard, then a candidate in a Democratic congressional primary, said in an TV interview.
The stunt was criticized by gun rights groups, which gleefully reported it to the ATF for creating an illegal short barrel rifle. But this tale doesn’t end with ridicule from the far-right. The painful, real “gotcha” moment, one which Mallard never wanted to be right about, happened one year later.
On May 31 a shooter, armed with the same extended-capacity magazines Mallard had called to outlaw after Parkland, killed 12 people in a public municipal building in Virginia Beach, less than one mile from her house.
When Mallard speaks about that massacre in Virginia Beach, it is hard to see her as the radical, liberal extremist that far-right YouTubers desperately want her to be, instead of a neighbor who lived the aftermath of the shooting.
“When you know people personally who are impacted and traumatized by it, I mean, I can’t even put into words what it was like going to the Family Reunification Center,” Mallard said in an interview, referring to the location where she and other members of the community gathered to receive updates after the massacre.
“It was at the middle school like across the street from my house. I went there to find out about my friends and people I know and just seeing their faces and being there with them as they receive, you know, bad news, it’s just horrifying and it just is heartbreaking what so many of them went through,” she said.
The “victims must be honored with action,” Mallard said. So it’s no surprise that when state Republicans adjourned a special session of the General Assembly on gun legislation without considering a single bill, it made her even more determined to run again, this time for the state legislature.
Universal background checks — “they couldn’t even do that?” Mallard asked, rhetorically. Numerous polls conducted since the Virginia Beach shooting have found overwhelming public support for expanding background checks for gun purchases.
Mallard, an elementary school teacher, is challenging Republican incumbent Glenn Davis in the 84th House District. The race is considered a toss-up, Davis won his last election by less than 800 votes.
While guns are a top voting issue and understandably on top of Mallard’s mind, she’d rather talk about education, the issue that sparked her to run for public office in the first place.
She uses her family as an example of the value of a quality public education. “It lifted my family from poverty to prosperity in just one generation,” Mallard said.
She recalled a Saturday afternoon some two decades ago, when Mr. Farmer, a school counselor, came over to help her mother fill out the paperwork for her two older brothers to go to college, including PELL Grant and scholarship forms. The tasks were daunting, but with Mr. Farmer’s help, Mallard’s brothers became the first in their family ever to apply to college.
Mallard took note. “I came home, I said, ‘Dad, I know you wanted me to be a nurse, but I’ve decided to be a teacher.’ And he said ‘well, I think that’s great.’”
“I thought about what a difference Mr. Farmer made in the lives of all five of us that graduated college all because this one teacher went above and beyond and helped my older brothers — because we followed in their footsteps,” Mallard said. All five of the Mallard kids got undergraduate degrees and three received post-graduate degrees, including Karen.
Mallard went on to become an elementary school teacher and a reading specialist. Her favorite pupil, however, was her father, a coal miner who she taught how to read when she was in college.
As a teacher she has a soft-spot not just for students, but for educators, too. “Why would anyone go to college here and spend $80,000 and go into debt for a job that pays $30,000? … And so we want to make sure that our profession receives the respect it deserves as well as the pay. It’s an incredibly important job for our society.”
Virginia teachers earn some of the least competitive salaries in the country, but Mallard, who has held numerous roles with the Virginia Beach Education Association and various education advocacy groups, makes the business case for raising teacher pay.
“The Virginia Beach city public schools has over 10,700 employees,” Mallard said. “When I talk to businessmen, I say ‘we educate the workforce that comes to work for you. And Fortune 500 companies, they look for school districts that are high-quality.’”
The underfunding of the schools themselves is another of her key talking points. “When children have to learn in buildings, you know that have leaky ceilings and mold in the walls … it makes it difficult for them to feel valued and it really impedes learning,” Mallard said.
Mallard speaks fluently about education, environmental, defense and healthcare policy, and she’s bringing new ideas to the table. But if she wins, it may have more to do with who she is — and the relationships she’s built in Virginia Beach — than her policy knowledge.
“I learned at a very young age the how important local politics is to your everyday life,” Mallard said. “You know, what happens at school board and city council and at the state level that impacts your life every single day, so you have to pay attention.”
But, “the true test of your character is what you do when nobody’s watching and you make sure that you are true to yourself and that you stand up for your values,” she said. “That’s how my mother raised me.”