A police car in Richmond, Va. Police currently provide the vast majority of transports to psychiatric hospitals across Virginia. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
After a steep rise in murders, former Gov. Ralph Northam and new Gov. Glenn Youngkin both proposed committing millions of dollars to reducing gun violence in Virginia. But the divided General Assembly still has to reconcile differing philosophies on how to intervene in violence-stricken communities to stop shootings before they happen.
Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares have joined House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, in pushing Virginia to embrace Operation Ceasefire, a gun-violence intervention model that aims to identify and divert those most at risk of shooting someone or being shot, often young men of color in high-poverty neighborhoods. The model involves police and/or community partners offering resources to people trying to leave gangs or similar groups, while warning of harsh consequences for future crimes.
Local intervention programs in cities like Boston and Richmond have produced striking drops in violence in the past, and Virginia officials are now debating how to streamline those efforts at the state level.
The Republican-backed approach, which has won approval in the House of Delegates, would give at least $5 million to the attorney general’s office, which could use the funds to award grants to community anti-violence groups and provide training and equipment for law enforcement. As originally proposed, the GOP bill would have created a state Group Violence Intervention Board, but Republicans argued putting the initiative under the attorney general’s office, where Miyares has signaled a tough-on-crime mentality, would mean less bureaucracy.
“Our communities don’t need studies. They need action,” Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, said during debate on the House floor. “They’re crying for action.”
Gilbert wants to bump the funding to $10 million over two years, a proposal that will be taken up as lawmakers hash out the state budget later in the session.
The approach backed by the Democratic-led Senate has been described as more “holistic,” relying on $27 million Northam proposed in his final budget to create the so-called Center for Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention within the Department of Criminal Justice Services. That center would serve as a “clearinghouse for data regarding firearm violence” that could recommend anti-violence strategies spanning “local health departments, institutions of higher education, research institutions, hospitals and other medical care facilities, community-based organizations, and law-enforcement agencies.”
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, pitched the bill she’s sponsoring as “broader in scope,” bringing in experts from multiple subject areas to analyze gun-violence data and address its root causes. Unlike the alternative, she said at a Senate committee hearing, her bill “doesn’t just say law enforcement and the attorney general would figure out how to address it.”
“I’m willing to talk to anybody to get us to a point where we have a center and a fund that works to address violence in Virginia,” McClellan said. “Period.”
In a politically divided legislature, the broader topic of gun control is mostly at a stalemate. Before losing their unified power in last year’s elections, Democrats passed sweeping gun-control priorities like universal background checks, a red flag law, a one-handgun-a-month rule and allowing more local regulation on guns in public spaces.
Operation Ceasefire and other community violence intervention programs haven’t produced the same intensely partisan fights as other debates on guns. It aligns with pro-gun Republicans’ emphasis on crime rather than law-abiding gun owners, while seeking to address violence felt most acutely in cities represented by Democrats.
Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, who sponsored a gun violence prevention bill in the House, said she’s hopeful a bipartisan agreement can be reached during budget negotiations.
“I just think sometimes we get stuck in our talking points,” she said.
Guns weren’t a major topic in Youngkin’s campaign against former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, but Youngkin voiced support for gun rights and McAuliffe promised to push for a ban on assault-style weapons, a prominent gun-control proposal Democrats had failed to achieve.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and a gun-buying surge has made it difficult to measure the impact of the state’s tougher gun laws, with some advocates voicing frustration that gun homicides continue to climb.
“It goes up every year. We need a better and bigger and more well-funded approach,” Lori Haas, Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said at a legislative hearing.
Haas and others had urged Virginia leaders to dedicate significant funding to gun violence prevention last year when the General Assembly was allocating $4.3 billion the state got through the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Anti-violence groups had asked for $37 million, but lawmakers ended up allocating $5 million, evenly split between the attorney general’s office and the Department of Criminal Justice Services.
Just last month, DCJS issued a grant solicitation seeking proposals from localities and nonprofits interested in community-based violence intervention programs, with applications due March 11. Those who favor keeping oversight with DCJS have pointed out the agency already has a role in the issue. Those who prefer the attorney general’s office have pointed out Mark Fero, a longtime state employee who has worked at both DCJS and under past attorney generals, recently returned to the attorney general’s office under Miyares.
“’We want it to follow the subject matter expert who’s run it under all the agencies,” Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, told colleagues after Fero explained he’d overseen similar grant funds through the Project Safe Neighborhoods program.
DeSteph’s proposal failed in the Senate, which went on to pass McClellan’s version by a bipartisan, 24-16 vote. Republicans in the House didn’t docket a Democratic bill similar to McClellan’s, but they too passed their preferred approach with some Democratic support.
The Youngkin administration has been blunt in its advocacy for the Republican proposals, arguing against a concentration of resources at the state level.
“The solution is not to have these communities be told by bureaucrats how to combat crime in a community where they can’t even name a street,” Maggie Cleary, a former prosecutor hired by Youngkin as deputy secretary for public safety and homeland security, said at the Senate hearing.
McClellan has pointed out the Republican approach isn’t broad enough to encompass suicide prevention. Nearly two-thirds of the gun deaths in Virginia every year are suicides.
Though Democratic lawmakers say their approach includes a role for law enforcement, they’re wary of elevating enforcement over community intervention.
Valerie Slater, executive director of Rise for Youth, an organization focused on “dismantling the youth prison model,” told senators McClellan’s bill involves “closer connection” to communities. She also noted Miyares’ recent moves to replace state lawyers working on civil rights.
“This is indeed a civil rights issue,” Slater said. “And we cannot ignore that.”
Republicans insist their efforts come from a sincere desire to save lives in Black communities.
“This is an opportunity for our communities to fight for those young people and get them out of those situations,” Wilt said. “The facts don’t lie. This works.”
After this week’s crossover deadline, each chamber will now take up the other’s gun violence bill and begin the push for a compromise.
“We share the desire to save lives in Black communities, which we are a part of and live in and represent and have been working with for years,” McClellan said in an interview. “And I’m glad to see Republicans focus on this issue.”
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