A shooting at the Belt Atlantic apartments in Richmond earlier this year killed a mother and her three-month old baby. (NBC12)
The pandemic relief spending plan crafted by Democratic leaders includes $5 million for community-based gun violence prevention initiatives, an amount that falls far short of the $37 million advocacy groups had suggested.
The original proposal was only $2.5 million. Legislators decided to double that in budget negotiations late last week, an apparent nod to the disappointment some gun-control proponents were feeling after seeing the funding amounts Democratic leaders had worked out in advance of this month’s special session.
“It’s not enough. I recognize that,” said Lori Haas, Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, one of several dozen advocates who signed on to a letter requesting $37 million. “But there is some process and research and information-gathering needed to make sure these dollars are spent to have the most impact.”
The letter from the group of gun-control advocates, health providers and community activists told policymakers funding was “urgently needed to address the severe increase in homicides and shootings associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.” Several Virginia cities have seen substantial spikes in violence, and the state’s overall homicide rate hit a two-decade high in 2020.
The letter from the Virginia Community Violence Coalition suggested substantial new money for violence intervention programs focused on deterring the small subset of people most at risk of being shot or shooting someone else. The state Department of Criminal Justice Services had also requested significant new anti-violence funding, suggesting $20 million in the immediate budget year and $17.5 million annually for the next three years.
The original $2.5 million, part of the $4.3 billion in American Rescue Plan funding Virginia policymakers are allocating in a special session that started this week, would be routed through Attorney General Mark Herring’s office “for gun violence reduction projects in partnership with select localities.” In a news release, the attorney general’s office said it intends to partner with community groups and law enforcement to replicate anti-violence initiatives that have already shown results in Richmond and Norfolk.
“These efforts will include education and prevention programs in conjunction with law enforcement, the local housing associations, tenant associations, faith-based organizations, non-profits, and more,” Herring’s office said.
The $2.5 million legislators added later will go to DCJS, which will give out grant funds to localities interested in starting or expanding anti-violence programs.
The plan also includes a little over $500,000 for the Department of Forensic Science to boost the state’s capacity to analyze gun evidence and an $800,000 grant to the city of Hampton focused on gun violence intervention and expanding youth employment opportunities.
Mike McLively, an attorney with the Giffords gun-control group, called Virginia’s spending package “a small step forward.”
“However, community violence is a crisis all across the commonwealth that requires a more significant commitment,” he said. “With potentially upwards of $1 billion of ARP funds still unused and a $2.6 billion budget surplus, Giffords and the Virginia Community Violence Coalition urge leaders in the General Assembly to make all our cities safer and more equitable by prioritizing robust funding to scale up effective, proactive, community-based public safety strategies.”
Democratic leaders have said they want to set aside $800 million to $1 billion in federal dollars to hedge against any setbacks in the pandemic recovery. They’ve also said they want to wait until their regular session in January before deciding what to do with the $2.6 billion state surplus left over in the budget year that ended last month.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said the spending package includes a total of $71 million for general anti-violence initiatives and services, including $30 million for mental health crisis services and mobile emergency response teams, $12.2 million for support services for crime victims, $10 million for substance abuse treatment and $4 million to improve mental-health training for law enforcement and implement the new Marcus Alert system that aims to create bigger role for mental health professionals when police are called to deal with a person in crisis.
“This comprehensive funding package addresses the systemic roots of violence, with gun safety programs working hand-in-hand with community-based services and substance abuse treatment, among other funding streams,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in an email. “The governor will continue to prioritize gun violence as he puts together his outgoing budget proposal in December.”
Northam championed a package of gun-control bills after Democrats won control of the General Assembly in 2019. Most of it passed, including new laws expanding background checks, limiting handgun purchases to one per month, creating red flag orders to take guns away from people deemed dangerous, boosting penalties for leaving guns accessible to children and requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms.
Republicans argued those measures would be ineffective at reducing shootings and say the rise in violence shows a targeted strategy against gun crimes could be a more effective approach than restricting access to guns.
An alternative spending plan House Republicans proposed this week re-upped a proposal from House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, to create a Group Violence Intervention Board with its own executive director that would oversee anti-violence grants to localities. That proposal failed along with the rest of the GOP plan.
“If you’re going to invest in this, it needs to be serious,” Gilbert said in an interview, adding that the programs he envisions need to have a strong policing component else “the logic of it falls apart.”
Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, Herring’s opponent in this year’s election for attorney general, also proposed an unsuccessful amendment to the spending bill that he said would give the office more power to prosecute illegal gun sales at the state level, particularly straw purchases.
Haas said she doesn’t buy the argument that the rise in violence indicates stricter gun laws don’t work. The COVID-19 crisis, she said, compounded longstanding “systemic inequities.”
“If we could arrest and prosecute our way out of gun violence it would’ve happened a long time ago,” she said. “The solution is not more punishment. The solution is interventions using a public health model.”
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