Governor Ralph Northam has shown leadership by calling the General Assembly into Special Session on July 9 to address gun violence in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting – this one in Virginia Beach, which took thirteen lives. The Governor and those of us who support gun safety measures realize the challenges ahead; Republicans, who hold a slim majority in the House and Senate and chair the committees, have been consistently reluctant to discuss measures supported by many Americans to cut down on gun violence and mass shootings.
Immediately after the Governor issued his call, Republican leaders leapt to brand it as “hasty;” in their view, it is never a good time to act against gun violence. Even as the statewide Special Committee on School Safety spent months last year working on many different aspects of safety for our children, the Speaker prohibited us from including gun safety measures in our discussions. In the last General Assembly session, nearly 35 measures were proposed to help combat gun violence and increase gun safety (two by me). The House bills, and the only one that made it through the Senate, were referred to a small House subcommittee controlled by rural conservative Republicans, where they all died. For years, gun safety bills have not been allowed to come to the House floor for a vote. After the Virginia Beach tragedy, many of us hoped that minds will change and that some of these measures can pass.
As we prepare for the Special Session, it is important to understand the facts. Here is what we know, based on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and our state’s medical examiner (Virginia Department of Health, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Annual Report 2017):
1. 310 people are shot by guns every day in the United States and 100 (more than 36,000 per year) of those people die from their wounds.
2. Not all of these incidents involve a crime; in fact, of the 100 people killed nationally every day, 61 die from suicide. In Virginia, 64.6% of reported gun-related deaths in 2017 were due to suicide, similar to previous years.
3. 90 Americans are shot unintentionally every day.
4. Of the 36,000 who die every year, only one third of these are murdered; tougher sentences may, in some circumstances, have a deterrent effect, but the numbers suggest that in the majority of shootings, people are not considering levels of punishment when they act. In fact, many of them do not expect to escape alive. Increased sentences are not likely to end the epidemic of gun violence that we see in our country.
5. Most people who attempt suicide do not die – unless they have a gun.
6. Finally, in an average month, 52 American women are shot to death by an intimate partner.
In summary, more than 36,000 people die every year from gun violence in the United States. While mass shootings receive most of the headlines, 22,000 people die from gun-related suicides each year. The majority of deaths and injuries from guns occur in accidents, direct assaults by one individual against another, or suicides.
SO, WHAT CAN WE DO?
Universal Background Checks
First, we can focus on keeping guns out of the hands of people who should not have them in the first place. This means passage of a tough universal background check law that will screen out domestic abusers, fugitives, people with serious mental illness, and others with felony convictions or serious mental illness that should not be able to purchase a gun.
Extreme Risk Protection Orders
Second, we can ensure that people in a serious mental health crisis who might pose a substantial risk to themselves or others do not have easy access to guns. One way to do this is by creating a way for courts to issue and enforce what is called an “Extreme Risk Protection Order” (ERPO). Such legislation would permit a family member or law enforcement to request court intervention so that, after a court hearing, guns could be temporarily removed from persons who a court determines pose a risk to themselves or others. The weapons would be returned when the crisis was over. Use of this Order might have prevented the perpetrators in Parkland and Virginia Tech shootings from gaining access to the weapons, which inflicted such carnage. It could reduce suicides, about 80 percent of which are preceded by some sign of the person’s intentions.
In response to Parkland, the state of Florida passed such a measure, and Colorado was most recent state added to the list of 12 states with ERPOs, enacting their measure in April 2019. Maybe the time for this is right. A recent poll of Virginia voters conducted by Public Policy Polling showed 83 percent of respondents – including 73 percent of Donald Trump voters – support a law to allow family members or law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily suspend a person’s access to guns if they have evidence that the person poses a significant threat to themselves or others. See reference article. These measures can also reduce the number of suicide by firearms. See reference article.
Reduce Lethalness Of Weapons
Third, we can reduce the lethalness of certain weapons that can be used to harm others. Hunters rarely use high capacity magazines or silencers to exercise their right and privilege to hunt game in Virginia, and neither of these gun accessories should be needed by people for self-defense. The Virginia Beach shooter had both a silencer and a high capacity magazine. This is one reason why he was able to kill so many people so quickly. High capacity magazines were used in the Las Vegas, Orlando, Newtown, Sutherland Springs, Parkland, and San Bernardino mass shootings.
Prevent Domestic Abuse
Fourth, we can prohibit habitual domestic abusers and stalkers from buying or possessing guns, and ensure that state law can remove a weapon from an intimate partner who is threatening the harm of another.
The key to having these measures passed will be to ensure that they have full committee hearings in both the House and the Senate, and floor votes. If you do not live in the 57th District, please contact your Delegate (and your Senator) and let them know you want floor votes on the above measures. You should also contact the chair of the House Militia Police and Public Safety Committee (Delegate Tommy Wright) and the Senate Courts of Justice Committee (Senator Mark Obenshain) requesting that any gun safety measures receive a hearing before full committee so that more citizens can participate and more representatives can vote.
I look forward to providing you additional information as we approach the Special Session and an update after we have completed our work.
UPDATE ON REDISTRICTING
After five years of litigation, and the expenditure of millions of taxpayer money by House Republicans, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand the decision of the federal court that the redistricting plan adopted in 2011 by Republicans in Virginia was an unconstitutional racial gerrymandering, and that the election this fall will be conducted with new districts in and around Richmond and Hampton Roads designed to resolve the problem. Many of us have been fighting the 2011 plan for years, and it was my hope that, before I left office, this plan would be ruled unconstitutional and that we will put in place a nonpartisan redistricting commission to draw lines in 2021. Step one has been accomplished; new district lines have been drawn that will be constitutional and fairer to voters. Step two awaits the action of the next General Assembly. If the body passes the proposed constitutional amendment establishing the redistricting commission, it will appear on the fall, 2020 ballot, where voters will likely decide to place it in the Virginia Constitution. Redistricting in 2021 will then occur in a fashion different than in the past, with far less partisanship.
Let Us Hear From YOU!
Please call my office at (434) 220-1660 or email me at DelDToscano@house.virginia.gov anytime, to let me know what you think about important bills.