Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., left, seated next to Arlington Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán, talks with students at Wakefield High in Arlington about federal gun violence policy. (Allison Winter/ Special to the Virginia Mercury)
ARLINGTON — In a talk with high school students Monday, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said that after years of congressional inaction on gun violence, he is hopeful lawmakers may be able to make some progress this month.
It was the second time in the past five years that Kaine has visited Wakefield High School. The last time, in 2018, was also to discuss gun violence after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Kaine, a Democrat, said he is frustrated that Congress has done so little since then.
“It’s sad to come back years later on the same topic I was here before and to come back with tragedies mounting, and to come back without Congress having done anything about it,” Kaine said to the students.
His visit follows mass shootings in New York, Texas and Oklahoma during the last three weeks. They include an attack on an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old man killed 19 children and two teachers.
Kaine said every similar shooting takes him back to the grief he still carries from the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech University that killed 32 people and injured 17 others while he was governor of the state. He has called the Tech massacre “the worst day of my life.”
“After 15 years, it’s not just the tragedy, it’s that Congress has done nothing. It’s the shooting and that Congress has done absolutely nothing,” Kaine said.
Kaine said he has “no guarantee” that the Senate will enact gun reform this time but that key lawmakers are in discussions and he sees more movement on the issue than he has in the past 10 years.
“The discussions are as intense as they have been since we had a bill before the Senate after the Sandy Hook shooting in April 2013,” Kaine said.
Democrats in the House of Representatives are expected to pass a gun control package but it will be much harder to get anything through the closely-divided Senate. The U.S. House Judiciary Committee approved a gun control package on a party-line vote last week. It is expected to go to the full House for a vote this week. Meanwhile, House and Senate committees have scheduled multiple hearings this week on gun violence.
And President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass gun control legislation in a speech last week at the White House.
Kaine spoke with 26 Wakefield students, who represented leaders in student organizations and students from a government class. The students aired their own frustration at the lack of action on legislation to slow down or limit purchases of firearms or require more rigorous background checks.
“We kind of feel like we are held hostage to political pressure. Change happens slowly but on this issue we are quite literally stuck in the mud,” said Ari Pearlstein, a senior at Wakefield High School.
Pearlstein participated in marches and demonstrations in 2018 after the Parkland shooting and is frustrated to be in the same position five years later.
“We thought something was going to happen but nothing happened. And since then we have seen more and more shootings,” Pearlstein said.
Nahier Tafere, a senior at Wakefield High School, asked Kaine to take a message back to his Senate colleagues who are hesitant to enact gun control reform.
“Every single time this happens we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that our lives don’t matter as much as a gun,” Tafere said.
The Virginia Plan
Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) have introduced legislation on gun violence that they hope could be a model for the Senate.
The Virginia Plan to Reduce Gun Violence Act proposes bringing to the federal level changes the Virginia state legislature adopted in 2020. The Virginia senators introduced the legislation last year and again this year.
“If we can do it in Virginia, where the NRA has its headquarters, we should be able to do it in Congress,” Kaine said.
Kaine is not on the Senate Judiciary Committee and is not a key negotiator in the Senate talks but said he is trying to “lob helpful ideas” to those deeper in the negotiations. He thinks gun reform that was able to pass in closely divided states like Virginia or Florida may be a good starting point.
The legislation would impose background checks for private gun sales, closing a loophole in federal law. It requires gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms, creates a limit to purchase only one handgun a month and boosts penalties for leaving guns accessible to children.
When the Virginia legislature approved the series of gun-control bills, Democrats hailed it as a historic breakthrough on one of Virginia’s most contentious political issues.
Kaine said the proposal on background checks might have the best chance in the Senate, noting that limiting gun purchases to one a month might be a hard sell for some of his Republican colleagues. He would also support limits on magazines and a ban on assault weapons but said both would be hard to pass in the current Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has said he will call for a vote on the House gun control legislation even if the Senate negotiators can not find agreement on legislation. He placed legislation on the Senate calendar at the end of May. The procedural move allows legislation to come to the Senate floor for a vote without going through the full committee process first.
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