In late August, following the fatal shootings of reporter Allison Parker and her colleague Adam Ward, I posted the following on my Facebook page: “Yet another tragedy…My heart and sympathy goes out to the families of the victims… In Virginia, we have been going backward (on gun safety measures).”
The post drew some criticism, and I considered responding. I did not, primarily out of concern that it might be taken as using a tragedy for political purposes. The newest shootings in Oregon and at Northern Arizona University, have again prompted calls for “thoughts and prayers” in light of another “tragedy.” Maybe it’s time, however, to change our language in describing these events; we could just as easily refer to these as “outrages” which require action rather than “tragedies” which simply need our “thoughts and prayers.”
Governor McAuliffe has chosen to act. He issued Executive Order 50 designed to do what he can within his Executive Authority. This includes a directive to law enforcement to redouble efforts to enforce laws on the books, and sets up a hotline (1-877-482-8477) which citizens can call 24 hours a day to report illegal gun activity. This will help, but change will also need to occur through legislative action.
I began my service in the General Assembly in 2006. Since then, many efforts have been made to pass commonsense gun violence measures. The Republican-controlled House of Delegates has defeated almost every single proposal. Instead, the General Assembly has repealed previously enacted commonsense measures such as “one gun a month,” and we now allow persons to carry weapons into bars (in Virginia, we call them restaurants). As Nicholas Kristof writes, gun violence continues, not just in the form of mass shootings, but, as a seemingly “continuous deluge of gun deaths, an average of 92 every day in America.” His piece is worth a read, and includes grim statistics about gun violence that kills thousands of innocent Americans each year, but does not draw the sensational headlines of mass shootings.
I will never forget my first legislative foray into this issue. I had been asked by a local Commonwealth’s Attorney to introduce a simple measure that would make it unlawful for a person subject to a protective order involving domestic violence (i.e., someone who a judge determined had either committed or threatened violence against another) from “possessing” a firearm. The measure had been prompted by an unsuccessful prosecution of a man subject to a protective order who was threatening his spouse while “possessing” a gun between his legs. The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s prosecution failed because of a loophole in the law, which prohibited the “ownership” or “transportation” of a weapon but NOT its “possession.” Since the gun between his legs was not owned by him or transported by him, the perpetrator was not convicted.
I was optimistic, largely because the proposed measure had the backing of the state Commonwealth’s Attorney Association, the Virginia State Police, local police departments, and the Sheriff’s Association. The bill came before a subcommittee of the House of Delegate’s Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety, where numerous law enforcement personnel testified in support of the legislation. Everything was going smoothly until the head of the ultraconservative Virginia Citizens Defense League, an organization to the right of the NRA, got up to argue against the measure. Now-Congressman, then House Republican Majority Leader, Morgan Griffith entered the room, moved quickly to kill the bill, and it experienced a shocking and sudden death. I then understood the power of the gun lobby in Virginia.
Flash forward to our legislative session in 2015. The Republicans in the House of Delegates had already killed efforts to close the so-called “gun show loophole,” the provision that allows unlicensed dealers and private sellers at gun shows to sell directly to individuals without a background check. We decided to try another approach; why not just give these private sellers the choice of having the Virginia State Police do the check if the seller believes there might be a concern? I introduced the bill, and it met a quick demise without a recorded vote in subcommittee – not unexpected given the history of the last few years.
Opponents of commonsense gun safety laws frame mass shootings as tragedies often committed by mentally ill people. The opponents would prefer to keep it this way, stressing the “senseless” character of the tragedy and the inability to stop mentally unstable people from acting irrationally. We must reject this frame. Once these “tragedies” begin to affect, as they have been doing, a broader cross-section of our society, what was once described as a private trouble has been transformed into a public issue that requires a policy response. That is why more than 90 percent of the public now favors universal background checks; this is hardly the opinion of the “anti-gun left,” but a commonsense approach to reduce risk to the public.
Convincing opponents of commonsense measures to reduce gun violence is difficult. First, no matter what we do, shootings like Charleston, Newtown, Columbine, Isla Vista, Ft. Hood, Brookfield, Aurora, Oak Creek, Roanoke, Virginia Tech, Roseburg – the list goes on, can still occur. But that shouldn’t be taken either as a rationale for doing nothing or reflective of pessimism about how social policy can change behavior. There are persons in our society with serious mental illness who may gain access to a weapon, either illegally or legally, and inflict harm on others. But why should this invalidate efforts for common sense, evidence-based reforms to limit gun violence? Shouldn’t we focus instead on reducing the risk of future tragedies?
We pass laws to reduce risk all the time. For example, we establish speed limits even though we know that some people will violate them and accidents will occur. We require seat belts in vehicles even though some people will not use them, and require insurance to help pay the cost of “tragic” accidents. We ban driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but many people still do. We even prevent people from using their automobiles if their repeated behavior (drunken driving convictions) poses a risk to others. Would we repeal these laws because “some people will always drive drunk” or over the speed limit?
Commonsense laws such as universal background checks will not entirely prevent people who should not have guns from getting them, but it will surely make it more difficult for them to do so. And the risk to the public will therefore decline. To the mental illness argument, many countries in the world, including western democracies, have incidences of mental illness similar or even greater than ours, but nowhere near the level of gun violence. While some of this difference can be attributed to cultural factors, there are simply more guns available in the United States.
Most proponents of commonsense gun safety measures have no interest in disarming the public. They simply want a reduction in the violence, and they recognize that doing nothing and simply responding with “thoughts and prayers” will not achieve that goal.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve the 57th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions or comments on matters before the Commonwealth.