A Grand Compromise on Crime, Mental Health and Guns

by James C. Sherlock

Had enough?

People organize into governments first for their collective protection. Virginians are not sufficiently protected from violence.

The mass shootings of the past couple of weeks in Virginia offer an impetus to strike a grand bargain on public safety.

Staying in corners waiting for control of all three branches of government to turn favored changes into law is a forfeit by public officials of their obligations to society.

For public confidence in the deal and its long term survival, as many as possible of its provisions will need to be packaged as a single compromise with the support of the governor and the leadership of both parties in the General Assembly.

The concepts I offer attempt to mitigate:

  1. The mass killings that we continue to experience, crimes that are committed in significant number by the mentally ill;
  2. The possession or use of deadly weapons in the commission of crimes;
  3. Unacceptable numbers of deaths from fentanyl;
  4. The number of illegal guns and the numbers of legal guns bought illegally;
  5. Gun modifications to increase their rates of fire; and
  6. Transfers of firearms without background checks.

I offer the following elements for consideration in a grand compromise.

  • Increase sentences and mandate prosecutions for the use or possession of deadly weapons in the commission of crimes. Treat the possession or use of weapons in crimes as offenses separate from the underlying crimes; and make 16 the age for automatic trial as an adult in weapons crimes;
  • Combine the Governor’s increased budget proposal for mental health with a strengthening of involuntary commitment laws;
  • Treat the distribution and sale of fentanyl as Class 1 felonies;
  • Increase penalties for the manufacture, sale, transport and possession of illegal weapons;
  • Increase penalties for possession, acquisition and transport of weapons acquired illegally;
  • Make illegal the sale or possession of weapons not commercially sold by licensed dealers with exceptions for antique weapons and weapons permanently disabled from firing;
  • Make illegal the possession or sale of any items for modification of a manufacturer’s designed rate of fire. This would include binary triggers, bump stocks and any other such device;
  • Mandate background checks for the public or private transfer or sale of any firearm;
  • Mandate secure storage of firearms in any dwelling in which minors are housed;
  • Inspect all public schools, colleges, universities and government workplaces annually for compliance with state laws on safety, including threat assessments and preventive actions;
  • Re-consider the extent to which the records of juveniles on gun offenses and mental health issues are sealed from background checks by law enforcement; and
  • Improve the protections for both the public and individuals offered by red-flag laws.

There will need to be language to ensure prosecutions for the crimes listed above in order to allay the fears of political decisions by some Commonwealth Attorneys.

Bottom line. Both sides need to get over their respective hopes or fears for a widespread confiscation of guns.

Not going to happen.

Even with a constitutional amendment, which has no chance of passing in the lifetime of anyone reading this, the confiscation itself would prove untenable.

Who, exactly, would confiscate 400 million guns? It isn’t going to be your local sheriff. A federal door-to-door gun confiscation corps? We cannot even fill the ranks of the Army. If we can throw water on the concept of confiscation and spread the wet ashes, we can make headway.

My ideas on the contents of a compromise have of course no special status. Better ideas are certainly out there and always welcome as long as there is sufficient balance to make the package a true compromise.

I think we know what the extremes of both sides of the national divide will object to in my purely notional list above.

I don’t care.

We have no choice but to improve public safety and security. Such a package is not feasible this year due to time constraints, but get one ready for next year. It should take hearings and might take a special session of the General Assembly to provide proper focus.

A true compromise on current left/right positions is the only way I see to get there and have the solutions last.

We must.