Commentary

A last-minute budget gambit won’t solve gun violence in Virginia

December 22, 2021 12:03 am

A shooting at the Belt Atlantic apartments in Richmond earlier this year killed a mother and her three-month old baby. (NBC12)

Ralph Northam, the soon-to-be former governor, waited until this month to announce a $27.4 million firearm violence prevention center in Virginia. It would “continue the work of reducing violence and making Virginia safe for everyone,” he said.

The move is noble. And largely an empty gesture. 

Northam, a Democrat, rolled the plan into his final budget proposal. His initiative is desperately needed in the commonwealth – and likely will go nowhere in the administration of Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin. 

The latter is a gun rights supporter who generally refrained from discussing firearms during the general election campaign. Also, the GOP will assume control of the House of Delegates in January. Its members usually oppose gun restrictions, sometimes vehemently. 

So give Northam half a golf clap for unloading this idea so close to leaving office. He declined to put political capital on the line when it may have made a difference.

Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, pushed back, telling me by email that he signed seven gun-safety bills into law in 2020. That’s when both chambers were controlled by Democrats. The measures included universal background checks, a “red flag” law, and the return in Virginia of limiting purchases to one handgun a month

The proposed center would collect data on firearm violence. It would report findings and provide resources to localities and community-based organizations. A coalition of groups trying to stem the tide of homicides had asked lawmakers this past summer to put up millions in federal rescue plan funding to combat violence. They wound up dissapointed by what the General Assembly came up with in an August special session.

‘Epidemic’ of gun violence prompts call for Virginia to use federal dollars to curb shootings

That’s “consistent with the (anti-violence) advocates’ requests,” Yarmosky said. Northam is leaving his successor “with a tremendous opportunity to continue building on our progress.”

You wouldn’t think such a relatively neutral initiative as a data collection center would be controversial. Few things involving guns, though, are free from partisanship in Virginia – or nationwide, for that matter. 

Northam knows that.

I tried to reach Del. Todd Gilbert for his reaction on the proposed center. The Shenandoah County Republican will be the new speaker of the House starting in January. He didn’t get back to me by deadline.

Gilbert has sought a different tack to reducing gun violence, one called Operation Ceasefire. He’s explained the approach previously in a column. The idea borrows heavily from a program used in Boston and elsewhere. 

It would focus “like a laser on the few bad actors driving crime,” Gilbert said in a 2019 op-ed. The program also tries to get those people to change their behavior. Intervention and prevention are key. Over five years in Boston, he said, youth homicides dropped by more than 60 percent.

Noticeably, he doesn’t call for gun control. 

Previous attempts by Gilbert, since 2019, to pass legislation bringing the program to Virginia have failed, according to my search of online bills. That might change, though Senate Democrats – who still control that chamber – could oppose Gilbert’s plan.

There’s no question Virginia should work to reduce gun crimes and associated violence, whatever the approach. The state’s homicide rate hit a 20-year-high in 2020.  

What gets even less attention is the ghastly number of suicides by guns that occur every year. Roughly two-thirds of gun fatalities annually are by suicides. The absence of guns in households, or making it tougher to get one, could mean the difference between someone killing himself or an intervention preventing it.

“There are studies that show that removing the lethal means is the best way to prevent suicide,” Bruce Cruser, executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, told The Virginia Mercury in 2019. “In this country, that is guns.”

Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, said 188 veterans lost their lives to suicide in 2020 and 135 of them used firearms, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

You can get weary researching the various gun crimes that occur across Virginia. We’ve become numb to the killings for the most part, unless they occur to someone we know, or in our own neighborhoods, or in an especially hideous manner. 

This is what I uncovered just since mid-December in Virginia, based on news media accounts:

• Annie May Smith, a 65-year-old grandmother, was shot and killed in a robbery at a gas station in Virginia Beach on Dec. 13. Police later arrested two brothers, and they face first-degree murder and other charges. 

• Early Dec. 14, Chesterfield County police said, a couple was fatally shot and another family member was injured in an apparent murder-suicide related to domestic violence.

• That night, a 17-year-old was shot dead following a high school basketball game that attracted 1,100 people in Newport News. Police said later Demari Batten, 18, the suspected shooter, and Justice Dunham, the victim, had exchanged “gestures” during the game.

• On Dec. 17, a 35-year-old woman was shot while driving along Interstate 64 in Richmond. 

• A 17-year-old boy was fatally shot in Norfolk on Dec. 18. That same day, a teenage woman was shot dead and a man was injured in Richmond. In Hampton, a shooting during an altercation between two vehicles along Interstate 664 left a 24-year-old man injured.

• Also last week, a Chesapeake man pleaded guilty to charges of making false statements involving firearms sales. Kevin Staton Jr., 23, was essentially a straw purchaser in several incidents. “At least 15 of the 45 firearms Staton purchased were recovered from crime scenes in other cities and states,” federal prosecutors said. 

My search was by no means exhaustive. Which makes this list of crimes and violence all the more dispiriting.

The problem of gun violence isn’t going away. Youngkin can prove his chops at creating solutions — even  if he dismisses Northam’s last-minute PR gambit.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

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