IT’S JUST NOT A PRIORITY – Republicans Continue to Delay Gun Safety Measures
In the aftermath of the horrific Virginia Beach shooting, and prior to the two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, on June 4 Gov. Northam called for a Special Session of the Virginia General Assembly to consider gun safety measures. Democrats introduced eight measures, including proposals for universal background checks and the creation of a “Red Flag” protective order that would remove guns from people who are experiencing mental health challenges that pose a risk to themselves or others. Most of the measures were bills that had been filed for the regular 2019 Session, but were defeated in a small subcommittee. Despite considerable fanfare, when the Assembly met on July 9, it adjourned after only 90 minutes. Republican leaders in the House and Senate could have called us back later this summer or early this fall, but instead decided to delay any further consideration until two weeks after the 2019 election.
Most people saw this quite properly as a “delaying tactic,” which was recently confirmed in a statement made by a Republican Delegate from the Roanoke area. “We needed to make it go away,” said the Delegate to a group of political activists; “We came up with a strategy that would neutralize the issues.”
TACTICS TO DELAY
The Republican strategy has been clear from the beginning – delay, delay, delay. Their plan was to refer all of the bills to the Virginia Crime Commission, a House/Senate committee controlled by Republicans. The Crime Commission met on Monday and Tuesday and a number of us who had filed Special Session bills got 3 minutes to present our proposals. Some presenters felt they should take only 30 seconds to explain their bills — the same amount of time it took the Dayton gunman to kill 9 and injure 27.
To this date, it remains unclear whether the Republican majority on the Crime Commission will take any action; all appearances suggest that they are simply trying to control the narrative on this issue by hearing testimony to undermine the case for legislation. They apparently were unaware that at least one of their experts did not get the memo. One invited guest, Claire Boine, a researcher working with Dr. Michael Siegel at Boston University, provided evidence about how universal background checks and other laws can reduce gun violence. You can download their policy brief here.
Boine, who co-authored a study on policies that can reduce gun violence, suggested that the following three initiatives would be effective:
1. Prohibiting people who have been convicted of violent misdemeanors from possessing guns;
2. Giving authorities the discretion to reject applications for concealed carry permits; and
3. Enacting universal background checks.
“If you adopt these three laws as a package,” said Boine, “you can reduce overall homicides by 36%, which for the state of Virginia would mean 124 people per year.” See article here.
GUN DEATH DATA
The Commission heard other valuable testimony from the Virginia Department of Health, which reported a slight uptick in annual Virginia deaths due to gun fatalities between 2007 and 2018. In 2007, there were 836 of these deaths; by 2018, the number had risen to 1,036. The rates of gun-related deaths in Virginia are almost exactly the same proportion as is found in the United States, 12.1 per 100,000 people. About two-thirds of these deaths (674 last year) are due to suicides. Men are 5.7 times more likely to commit suicide than women, and higher suicide rates are found in the more rural areas of Virginia. Higher gun-related homicide rates are found in urban areas, with Petersburg and Richmond leading the list. In 2018, our state reported 784 people hospitalized with non-fatal gun injuries. See the full report on gun deaths in Virginia here.
Data also exists to support the enactment of “Red Flag” initiatives. A recent study by the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis concluded that red flag laws, now enacted in 17 states and the District of Columbia, reduce gun violence.
According to recent data on gun violence from the Centers for Disease Control, there were 39,773 deaths by firearms in the United States in 2017; 23,854 of these were suicides, just under 60%. About 36.6% of all gun deaths (14,542) were murders and another 1.2% were accidental. The data also show that suicides by guns increased by 30% between 2008 and 2017. The national statistics report can be found here.
IT IS TIME TO TAKE ACTION
With numerous bills filed and ready for committee hearings and floor debate, and statistics like these from law enforcement and public health experts, the legislature should act. When the Republican leadership deems something important, they’ve already shown they are willing to ensure action. After the school shootings at Parkland, for example, the Speaker of the Virginia House stated that school safety was so important that we would convene a special committee to address it; ironically, the select committee was not permitted to discuss guns. Although school shootings are relatively rare compared to other gun violence, those of us on the committee worked hard to develop some additional strategies to address school safety, some of which were enacted in the last Assembly session. By contrast, the Speaker does not seem to see gun violence as an important-enough problem to do anything but delay any consideration of safety-promoting bills until after the election.
At present, there are no plans for the General Assembly to reconvene until after the election. It is becoming increasingly clear that the present composition of the body will not enact reasonable gun safety legislation; either that must change, or Virginians must change the General Assembly in November.