U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

After Republicans voted to adjourn Tuesday’s special session on gun legislation less than two hours after it began, they compared their plan to send bills to the State Crime Commission for study to the approach then Gov. Tim Kaine took following the 2007 killings at Virginia Tech.

Kaine said Wednesday that while he did establish a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the circumstances of the shooting that left 32 victims dead, the similarities end there.

“It’s a completely bogus argument,” said Kaine, now a Democratic U.S. senator, noting the legislature refused to act on one of his panel’s primary recommendations on gun legislation: universal background checks. “So Gov. Northam did not need a panel on this. … I’m not saying an investigation isn’t a good idea, but that’s not the reason they cancelled the session after two hours. They did that because they are unwilling to make the NRA and gun manufacturers mad.”

Democrats in the General Assembly made similar arguments on Tuesday – some in even franker terms.

“You and I both know that 12 years ago after the shooting at Virginia Tech, not one damn thing was done other than some mental health bills,” said Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

“Let me just point out to everyone in here that within 21 days after the shooting in Parkland, Gov. Scott – a Republican – signed into law a bill that raised the buying age to 21, banned bump stocks and allowed police to take a guy to court and tell the judge he’s mentally unstable and stop all this. … There was no damn reason we couldn’t have done that here today.”

Whether Kaine’s panel can be viewed as a bi-partisan legislative success depends on what people were hoping to get out of it, says Richard Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.

If the goal was gun safety legislation, not much happened. The panel specifically notes in its report that “deep divisions in American society regarding the ready availability of rapid fire weapons and high capacity magazines” rendered the issue “beyond the scope of this review.”

Lawrence Roberts, who served as an adviser to Kaine, said the administration was not “predominantly focused on gun laws because we knew at the time there was even less of a chance that significant gun legislation would pass the General Assembly.” And, indeed, the universal background check measure didn’t even survive in the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats.

But Bonnie, who was chairman of the Supreme Court of Virginia’s Commission on Mental Health Law Reform at the time of the Tech shooting, said the tragedy did lead to important reforms to the state’s mental health system and campus safety regulations.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s one of the instances where tragedy creates an opportunity,” he said, though he noted some of that work was already underway and that additional funding lawmakers set aside for community mental health services was later cut during the recession.

Those are the successes Republicans seized on Tuesday as they pitched their plan to send legislation to the Crime Commission for review.

“Because the governor failed to establish a blue-ribbon commission, the crime commission will undertake this responsibility,” said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, joining House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, in praising Kaine’s response to the shooting as bi-partisan and productive.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, presides over the brief special session on gun legislation called by Gov. Ralph Northam. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Responding to Democrats’ arguments that little progress was made following the Virginia Tech review, Cox’s spokesman, Parker Slaybaugh, forwarded a letter from Northam’s administration that concluded “the vast majority of the recommendations were acted upon in some form.”

Slaybaugh added: “We have no doubt the review conducted by the Crime Commission will be just as successful.”

Not all Republicans favored the approach, even if they strongly opposed Northam’s proposals. Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, told radio host John Fredericks on Wednesday morning that “the narrative is now that we ducked, covered and ran” and that he would have preferred to “stay and fight.”

Meanwhile Democrats challenged the idea that the gun legislation proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam required further study.

“My panel at the end of it made a recommendation dealing with background checks and they wouldn’t do it,” Kaine said. “They wouldn’t do it after a panel. So when they claim, ‘Oh, we need to cancel this special session after two hours of doing nothing because what we need is an investigation’ – no, they had an investigation in 2007 where the venerated retired head of the Virginia State Police, a range of experts made a recommendation with respect to background checks and the Republicans wouldn’t do it.”

That “venerated” retired head of the Virginia State Police, Col. Gerald Massengill, said he reviewed Northam’s legislative proposals. His conclusion: “It’s pretty much the things we’ve heard and looked at before.”

That said, as a former member of the Crime Commission himself, he doesn’t think giving them a chance to review the proposed legislation is a waste of time. “I think you’ll see some worthwhile background work accomplished and some enlightenment on the pros and cons of the issues that we’re dealing with.”

Ned Oliver reported from Richmond. Robin Bravender reported from Washington. 

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Ned Oliver
Ned, a Lexington native, has a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He also has the awards to show for it, including taking a pair of first-place honors at the Virginia Press Association awards earlier this year for investigative reporting and feature writing. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. Contact him at [email protected]
Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender is the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Newsroom, a network of state-based news outlets that includes the Virginia Mercury.