IN THE wake of the horrific mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Building on May 31 by a longtime city employee, Gov. Ralph Northam has called a special session of the General Assembly on Tuesday to revisit the controversial issue of gun control.
Northam said he wants state legislators to pass a number of gun control measures to prevent another massacre, such as universal background checks; a ban on so-called assault weapons, bump stocks and suppressors (better known as silencers); a one-gun-a-month rule; “red flag” protective orders; and other restrictions on Virginians’ 2nd Amendment rights.
But even if all of the gun restrictions the governor espouses had already been enacted, Northam himself recently conceded to a group of high school students attending Virginia Boys State at Radford University, they would likely not have prevented the bloodshed in Virginia Beach.
The suspected shooter was a civil engineer who had worked for the City of Virginia Beach for 15 years and was reportedly in “good standing,” who had recently resigned “for personal reasons.” He used two .45-caliber handguns, both legally purchased two years apart—not an assault weapon—to kill a local contractor and 11 of his co-workers and seriously injure four others before he was fatally shot by police.
Virginia Beach already prohibits the use of silencers, and firearms are not allowed in the Municipal Building. Although one employee later reported feeling threatened by him, there was no official report to trigger a “red flag” law. The killer had no criminal record and his motive remains unknown.
Frustrated by the lack of information as to how and why the carnage occurred, the Virginia Beach City Council voted unanimously last Tuesday to hire independent investigators to look into the events leading up to the shooting. Until that investigation is completed and a clearer picture emerges, anything the General Assembly does would be based on conjecture, not facts.
House Speaker Kirk Cox responded to Northam’s call for a special session by stating that the General Assembly will meet as required by the Virginia Constitution, but that lawmakers—not the governor—will set the agenda. “We believe addressing gun violence starts with holding criminals accountable for their actions, not infringing on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Cox said in a statement, adding that Republicans will introduce a bill requiring mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed with a firearm.
That’s a good start. But harsher punishment won’t deter suicidal killers any more than more restrictive gun control laws in a nation in which the ability “to keep and bear arms” is a constitutional right, reaffirmed in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller ruling.
U.S. citizens have the right “to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home,” the high court ruled, noting that D.C.’s total ban on firearms was a violation of that right, as was an ordinance that required city residents to keep their weapons disassembled or disabled by a trigger lock. In a subsequent 2008 ruling, McDonald v. Chicago, the court ruled that Heller applied to the states as well as to the federal government.
However, “like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,” the Heller decision stated. These two rulings establish the constitutional boundaries around which any debate on gun control must occur. Virginia cannot take away guns from law-abiding residents, but it can regulate their use.
Gov. Northam has no idea how to prevent another Virginia Beach shooting because nobody yet knows why it happened. So the special session he called is mostly about political optics. Democrats will virtue-signal their opposition to gun violence, as though they’re the only ones in the commonwealth who deplore it; while Republicans reassure their supporters that they stand firmly behind the 2nd Amendment, as if they had a choice in the matter.
What’s needed is a reasonable compromise in Richmond, which might take the shape of a ban on silencers and bump stocks and a one-gun-a-month restriction in addition to longer mandatory sentences for crimes committed with firearms.
That wouldn’t prevent another Virginia Beach shooting. But it would show constituents of both parties that the governor and legislators are actually sincere about trying to reduce gun violence by criminals while respecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Virginians, and that these are not mutually exclusive goals.