A potential buyer tries out a gun which is displayed on an exhibitor's table during the Nation's Gun Show on November 18, 2016, at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A researcher at Boston University told a state panel weighing gun legislation Monday that passing three new firearms laws in Virginia could lead to 124 fewer homicides a year – an estimate she said she considers conservative.

Claire Boine, who co-authored a study on the most effective policies in reducing gun violence, told the State Crime Commission that her research on gun laws around the country shows the biggest impact on homicide rates comes from policies that restrict access to guns among people with a history of violence, singling out legislation that would:

  • prohibit people who have been convicted of violent misdemeanors from possessing guns,
  • give authorities the discretion to reject concealed carry permit applications, and
  • institute universal background checks.

“If you adopt these three laws as a package you can reduce overall homicides by 36 percent, which for the state of Virginia would mean 124 people per year,” she said.

Boine was one of eight speakers to address the commission, which Republicans in the General Assembly tasked with weighing legislation proposed as part of the special session on gun legislation called by Gov. Ralph Northam following the mass shooting in Virginia Beach – a move Republicans cast as thoughtful and Democrats disparage as an abdication of duty.

The commission began its work Monday with a day of presentations from an array of experts that delved into the mechanics of existing gun laws and background checks, the volume of sales and the number of associated injuries and deaths counted annually. On Tuesday, they’re scheduled to hear more than eight hours of testimony from members of the General Assembly, lobbyists and the general public.

Boine said her research found policies focused on the types of weapons people can buy, i.e. assault weapons bans, are less effective and, in some ways, might do more to alienate gun owners than stop violence.

She attributed that finding in part to the fact that homicides due to mass shootings are relatively rare in the broader landscape of gun violence, though she noted that restrictions on magazine capacity in particular could play a role in limiting the number of fatalities in shootings such as Dayton, when a gunman was able to kill nine and injure 27 people in 30 seconds.

“It might make a difference if the person used a 10-round magazine versus a 30-round magazine when such small periods of time matter,” she said.

Democratic lawmakers on the panel singled out Boine’s findings as persuasive evidence in support of legislation they’ve been pushing for years. Republicans on the committee were less enthusiastic.

“I personally don’t agree with her perspective on that,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, who chairs the commission. “It didn’t work very well when judges were given the broad discretion that allowed them to make subjective decisions (on concealed carry permits).”

Members of the State Crime Commission heard presentations Monday detailing the current landscape of gun laws and regulation, ownership, injuries and death in Virginia. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

He and other GOP members of the committee appeared most enthusiastic about a presentation on urban violence intervention strategies, which have also seen success in reducing shootings.

“I know there are communities that really do live in fear and that is part of the work we’re looking at,” Obenshain said.

Democrats said they support violence reduction strategies, but said they need to be part of a comprehensive approach. “I don’t think we can take (intervention strategies) and say we’re done,” said Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “No.”

Members of the commission heard an array of presentations detailing the current landscape of gun laws and regulation, ownership, injuries and death in the state.

Among other figures that surfaced over the hours of discussion:

1,036 gun deaths were recorded in Virginia last year.

The number has climbed over the past decade from 818 in 2008, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The highest rate of homicides over the past five years was recorded in Petersburg, which counted 31 per 100,000 residents, followed by Richmond at 22 and Danville at 17.

Homicides accounted for about a third of gun-related deaths most years. The remainder, about two thirds, were attributed to suicides: 647 in 2018.

784 people were hospitalized with non-fatal gun injuries in 2017.

The data, also provided by the health department, relies on hospital reporting and officials cautioned the figures aren’t comprehensive. The state logged 567 in 2008, but, again, officials warned that because of a change in the way the data is logged in 2015, it’s too soon to know whether the figures represent a genuine increase in injuries.

The bulk of the non-fatal shootings were logged as either unintentional or assaults. Of the assaults, 79 percent were aged 15 to 34, 89 percent were male and 77 percent were black.

644,373 concealed handgun permits are currently active in Virginia.

Nearly all of them were issued by circuit court judges, and 43 are active on a de-facto basis under a state law that automatically grants a permit if a judge doesn’t act on an application within 45 days.

State police also report 11,345 active machine gun registrations in the state.

446,333 firearms purchased in Virginia last year were subject to a criminal background check.

That’s a decrease from a 10-year high of 505,722 in 2016, according to the Virginia State Police.

Fewer than 100 of those background checks were conducted as part of the voluntary checks the department makes available to private sellers at gun shows who are not licensed and not required to conduct checks prior to making a sale.

Of purchases subjected to a check, 40 percent were delayed to facilitate a review of the purchaser’s record and an average of 3,300 were denied annually, usually because of either a felony record or domestic violence conviction.

10,021 firearms recovered by police as part of a criminal investigation were traced to a legal purchase in Virginia, the seventh highest number for any state.

And those guns go from purchase to crime scene quicker than nearly any other state, according to 2017 data compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That’s the third quickest turnaround of any state, behind only Missouri and Wisconsin, with 2,079 guns purchased here traced back to crimes in the first year after their purchase.

That short turn around is indicative of trafficking and straw purchase activity, ATF told members of the Crime Commission.

Nearly all the weapons traced in 2017 were pistols – 6,708. The top recovery city was Richmond, with 1,356 weapons recovered and traced, followed by Virginia Beach at 909.

Police made five arrests for straw purchases last year.

That’s up from two in 2017.

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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]