HOW WILL Virginia voters react to last Tuesday’s so-called special session of the General Assembly on gun violence? Will they reaffirm the Republicans’ contention that the session was “an election-year stunt” by Gov. Ralph Northam? A waste of everyone’s time? Or will they wonder why the men and women charged specifically with addressing one of the most troubling issues of our time can’t even discuss it in civilized fashion?
No matter where one stands on the issue, we hope everyone at least feels sorrow for the loss of life in Virginia Beach that precipitated Northam’s decision to call the special session. There may not have been a soul in Virginia who thought the special session would actually accomplish anything, but Tuesday’s display of legislative inaction was so egregious and embarrassing that even the most politically cynical Virginians were taken aback.
Based on the inability of politicians at any level to act in any way to curtail the violence, the loss of innocent lives seems to be the least of their concerns. However, advancing even common-sense measures to make mass shootings more difficult to carry out, measures that would have no impact on lawful gun ownership, are anathema to the gun lobby and some gun-rights advocates.
It is shameful—given the suffering of the Virginia Beach shooting’s victims and survivors, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting victims and survivors, and all Virginians whose lives have been touched by gun violence—that their lawmakers, predominantly the Republican lawmakers who lead both chambers, did not see this as an opportunity to at least discuss the matter at hand. Or, in other words, as an opportunity to do their jobs.
If Republican lawmakers did not agree with Gov. Northam’s legislative proposals, such as universal background checks, bans on assault weapons, bump stocks and silencers, a one-gun-a-month rule or “red-flag” provisions, no surprise there.
They could instead do what House Speaker Kirk Cox said prior to the session that they would do: “We intend to use that time to take productive steps to address gun violence by holding criminals accountable with tougher sentences—including mandatory minimums.”
But they didn’t.
They could have considered Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment’s bill to ban guns in public buildings, which it turns out even Norment himself didn’t support.
So that didn’t happen, either. After 90 minutes, they all just went home.
As we said in this space one week ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), and reiterated in McDonald v. Chicago (2010), that “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.”
That is a premise on which to pursue common ground.
But this special session was set up to fail because Republican lawmakers decided ahead of time that the governor’s proposals would not have prevented the Virginia Beach shooting and were therefore irrelevant. They want to see the results of the Virginia Beach investigations before they act. Well, yes, and no.
There is every reason to study the Virginia Beach shooting thoroughly to discover ways it could have been prevented—elements unique to the situation and shooter that deserve study and remedy. Virginia Beach officials have ordered an additional, third-party investigation to do just that.
But it isn’t the legislature’s job to sit on its hands and await investigators’ findings about a previous shooting. Lawmakers should instead be working to try to prevent the next one, identifying aspects that such shootings have in common. What are some legislative actions that could help keep guns out of the hands of the bad guys or the mentally ill? Do longer or mandatory sentences actually serve as a deterrent? Does such logical thought even cross the criminal mind when the urge to kill takes over?
These are issues—like those raised by Speaker Cox—that merit comprehensive research. It’s precisely the research that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is barred from doing under the 1996 “Dickey Amendment,” named for former Republican Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas. Efforts are underway in Congress to do away with that amendment and fund new research so elected officials have the facts they claim to need in order to act.
Now that lawmakers have kicked the can down the road, with a plan to resume the session on Nov. 18, voters will get to say what they think beforehand when all 140 General Assembly seats are up for election on Nov. 5.
Whatever the voters have to say about this recent turn of events, we hope they don’t hesitate to speak up.