In a statehouse that’s debated guns for decades, testimony treads familiar ground

By: - August 21, 2019 12:37 am

Advocates on both sides of the gun debate once again filled a committee room at the General Assembly Building to testify on gun legislation, this time before the Virginia State Crime Commission. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The same advocates. The same arguments. Many of the same pieces of legislation.

Five hours of public testimony on gun safety legislation Tuesday tread familiar ground in a statehouse that’s been debating the issues in tightly-packed committee rooms for decades.

A Falls Church City Council member pleaded with lawmakers to allow them to ban guns from City Hall, saying heavily armed groups attending City Council meetings intimidated residents. An NRA lobbyist argued gun-free zones actually attract criminals.

A group of physicians called for red-flag laws to allow police to temporarily remove guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. The leader of a large pro-gun group said such measures amount to “raping the Constitution.”

Some state residents shared their gruesome brushes with gun violence. Others described fending off robbers with a trusty side arm.

If there was a theme that united advocates on both sides of the debate, it was periodic exasperation at years of repetitive testimony.

“I appreciate you being here, but can we please not take any longer to address this problem?” said Lori Haas, whose daughter was wounded during the mass shooting at Virginia Tech 12 years ago and has been advocating for tighter gun laws at the Capitol ever since. “I’m just frustrated. I know we can do better. I know you can do better. Let’s please start today.”

Meanwhile, Philip Van Cleave, who leads the Virginia Citizens Defense League, bemoaned how “every time some miscreant commits a mass murder, gun owners brace for the onslaught of gun control aimed.”

Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence, addressed the Virginia State Crime Commission on Tuesday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

This time around, there is one small difference. Instead of making their case before small committees of lawmakers during whirlwind winter legislative sessions, advocates addressed the 13-member State Crime Commission, a body that includes non-lawmakers, to which Republicans forwarded all legislation proposed during a special session called by Gov. Ralph Northam following a mass shooting in Virginia Beach.

GOP leaders have tasked the commission’s staff with weighing the dozens of legislative proposals submitted by lawmakers and developing a set of policy recommendations. Lawmakers on the committee say they will then vote on which of those suggestions deserve consideration by the full General Assembly.

The commission began its work Monday, when they heard from eight experts who detailed existing firearms laws, fatalities and potential policy solutions. Tuesday’s hearings allowed advocacy groups, members of the public and lawmakers to add their voices.

The commission’s chairman, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said he’s not yet determined when the commission’s staff will present their recommendations and when the commission’s members will vote on them, but in either case, Republicans have said the full General Assembly will not return to act on any of the policies until after the November elections.

Democrats have lambasted Republicans for putting off action until a post-election, lame-duck session. “These proposals do not need further study,” Northam wrote in a letter to members of the commission Monday. “In fact, some of these measures were first recommended after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.”

Republican leaders framed the approach as deliberative and thoughtful, criticizing Northam for calling the session so quickly after the Virginia Beach shooting. After the commission wrapped up the public hearings on Tuesday, Republican legislative leaders praised the exercise as valuable and informative.

“Even for those of us with a detailed understanding of this issue or extensive legislative experience, the last two days have been tremendously informative,” said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City. “While some have chosen to turn this important issue into a partisan squabble, we will continue to take a deliberative approach that leads to productive and workable solutions.”

However one Republican delegate described his party’s approach in slightly different terms. The Roanoke Times reports that Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, boasted to political activists that the decision to route legislation through the Crime Commission was a way to “neutralize the conversation” until after the election.

“We needed to make this go away,” he said.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, 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 is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.