The smart money is on a fruitless stalemate during the special session Gov. Ralph Northam has called on gun violence in the wake of the shooting that killed 12 in a municipal building in Virginia Beach.
Republican leaders, who cling to narrow majorities in the House of Delegates and Senate, say they have no intention of entertaining any of Northam’s proposals to institute magazine capacity limits, an assault weapon and suppressor (silencer) ban, “extreme risk” protective orders or reinstating the one-gun-a-month law, among other measures.
Because, of course, the days and weeks after a mass killing is no time to talk about the weapons and accessories used in that killing (extended magazines and a sound suppressor that made at least one survivor think the noise she was hearing was a nail gun) or whether certain other laws should be changed to make people safer.
“We should not detract from our period of grief by politicizing this tragedy with a debate on gun control,” said Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, a gun collector and dealer.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that there was no prior outreach from Northam about trying to accomplish something during the session.
And it appears the GOP will push its own legislative package, which Northam is likely to veto, to “stiffen penalties for those who use firearms to commit crimes, including mandatory minimum sentences,” Cox’s office said in a statement.
“The governor’s call to special session is more likely to inflame political tensions than produce substantive public policy changes that will keep people safe,” Cox said. “We believe addressing gun violence starts with holding criminals accountable for their actions, not infringing on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.”
Mandatory minimums and tougher sentences will do nothing to deter mass killers ready to die by their own hands or in shoot-outs with the police, of course, and many of them acquire and use their weapons legally until the moment they don’t.
However, it’s not inconceivable that tougher gun sentences could make a dent in the every-day gun violence that kills several hundred people in Virginia every year.
In a more sensible time and place, perhaps a special session could actually result in laws that make it more difficult for one of our deranged fellow Virginians to walk into a public place and gun down as many of the rest of us as he can as well as combat the more routine killings that particularly afflict our urban areas.
Instead, this is 2019 and an election year with all 140 seats in the General Assembly on the November ballot.
“Nothing is going to happen. This is all about the governor using his power to force Republicans to take some uncomfortable votes and make them look bad,” Alex Keena, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me.
Buoyed by high turnout in recent elections and new court-drawn House of Delegates maps that, unless the U.S. Supreme Court chooses to overrule them, should aid in their attempt to take control of the legislature this fall, Democrats see the special session as a chance to put the squeeze on Republicans.
“The Democrats are feeling very confident,” Keena said. “They see it as a win-win situation where candidates can campaign on this issue while it’s fresh in voters’ minds.”
That doesn’t mean that it’s an illegitimate exercise, as some Republicans have complained. Presenting voters who want more restrictions on guns with a stark choice, especially when Republicans have repeatedly killed modest measures in committee over the past several years, is fair game.
“Republican leadership have been absolute cowards on these bills,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in a media call last week. “Virginians deserve to know where each and every legislator stands on these issues.”
Keena thinks there’s a chance of it backfiring — “Republicans have been very good about using gun control as an issue to motivate their base,” he said — but noted that the numbers aren’t on their side, with the GOP failing to win a single statewide election over the past decade.
“The writing’s on the wall,” he said. And some polls show most Virginians overwhelmingly favor stronger gun laws.
Reasonable people know there is no single law or laws that can prevent every instance of mass murder. But reasonable people should also agree that right now, in the United States, mass murder is far too easy. I have been to gun ranges dozens of times and I have never seen anyone use a suppressor to protect hearing.
The risk to the rest of us — in so far as it makes it harder to discern whether shots are being fired in your office — far outweighs whatever narrow legitimate use might exist for such a device.
Likewise with high-capacity magazines, there must be a balance between public safety and personal protection.
For roughly a year of my life, I went to work every day as an armored car guard with a 9 mm pistol with 10-round magazines in the days before the expiration of the 1994 assault weapons ban. In the unlikely event I ever had to use it, I figured, if that wasn’t enough to get me out of trouble nothing would. I know many gun owners would vehemently disagree, but it’s beyond dispute that having to reload in a mass shooting situation buys bystanders and victims precious time to flee or act.
Short of banning all guns though, which seems like an impossible lift in a country with more guns than people — especially when a subset of those people are firmly convinced owning and carrying them is a God-given right and that the Constitution shields it from virtually all regulation — there is no way to totally eliminate gun violence.
But, by focusing more of our attention on interventions aimed at potentially dangerous people and the guns they own, and not the features of the guns themselves, one UVA professor argues, we can make our society safer.
They’re called extreme risk protection orders, and they create a legal framework to temporarily separate gun owners from their weapons if a judge determines their erratic behavior or troubling statements warrant the action.
“It’s an intervention that I think ought to attract people from all over the political spectrum,” said Richard Bonnie, a law professor and director of UVA’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy.
Indeed, Republicans like President Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have backed the idea. GOP South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has also supported the concept, called it a point of “common ground.”
“You get the guns out of the person’s hands and then you have this much more substantial procedure,” Bonnie told me. “It’s a short-term intervention and there’s continuing opportunity for people to demonstrate that they don’t present (that) type of risk.”
There’s been no reporting yet that I’ve seen about whether the Virginia Beach killer exhibited any behavior disturbing enough that someone would have said something to police.
“There are many of these cases where there were these premonitory signs,” he said.
And with a “red flag” law on the books, people who are worried that someone they know with access to guns might be about to use them, either on themselves or other people, will have a process to employ.
“This can save lives and it can further the cause of raising public awareness” Bonnie said. “It’s so clearly to me that this is a sensible public policy.”
Virginia Republicans, of course, already had a chance to pass a red flag law this year but refused. They should come to the table, instead of continuing to carry water for the most extreme gun rights types. In a state that is just getting bluer, their obstinacy is increasingly indefensible.
Doing nothing is not only wrong, it looks ever more risky politically.