Virginia’s Plan to Attack Gun Violence — Will It Survive?

by David Toscano

It has been [a month] since the shootings in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas, took 31 lives and once again crystallized the need for more effective measures to combat these outrages. It is not clear whether Congress can summon the will for even the most minor of reforms, but our leaders need to transition from “thoughts and prayers” to real policy change if we are ever to combat the scourge of gun violence in this nation. Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner recently called on Congress to enact the “Virginia Plan” of gun violence reforms, based on major changes made in the Commonwealth in the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions.

Virginia Has Seen Its Share

Virginia has neither escaped the carnage of mass shootings nor the heated debates about what to do about gun violence. The 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech left 32 dead, and another 12 were killed during the 2019 shooting in Virginia Beach. Neither involved AR-15 style weapons (the killers used semiautomatics, but they were pistols). The Virginia Tech tragedy prompted creation of a government commission that brought only minor change. But Virginia remained a strong gun-rights state into the 2010s.

The school shootings at Parkland drew further attention to the issue. The Republican Speaker of the Virginia House grudgingly convened a special committee to address school safety, but then prohibited it from discussing guns. Following the Virginia Beach shootings in 2019, Governor Northam called a special session on gun violence; Republicans adjourned it in 30 minutes with no action.
The public clearly wanted change, but the legislature refused to act. A major reason is that, in years past, Republicans were more effective in mobilizing their voters around gun issues. As Bellwether describes it:

Republicans, especially in rural areas, never had much difficulty in touting their strong support for “the right to keep and bear arms,” and actively sought the endorsement of the National Rifle Association (NRA); it would often be the defining issue that would get their voters to the polls. Democrats used to walk a finer line. Gun safety advocates tended not to be single issue voters, and guns ranked lower in their hierarchy of concerns. Consequently, even if candidates strongly supported gun safety initiatives, they usually wrapped their positions in Second Amendment and stated they would never “take your guns away.” This nuanced position began to change in the 2010s! Democrats, especially in the suburbs, began to campaign vigorously on gun safety issues. With Northern Virginia (NoVa) and suburbia in the political ascendency, the hold of the NRA loosened. With each successive mass shooting, gun safety activists had become increasingly energized, and some voters had now made gun safety a priority issue that determined their vote.

Polls showed this movement. In 2018, only 9% of Virginia respondents ranked “gun policy” as the most important issue facing the country. By 2019, three of four voters rated gun policy as a “very important” issue in determining their vote, and the vast majority supported statewide bans on assault weapons as well as limiting gun purchases to one a month.

The 2019 election in Virginia brought the state a Democratic majority clearly committed to gun safety measures, and they moved quickly in 2020 to enact new policies reflecting that view. In a series of party-line votes, the legislature reinstituted the “one-handgun-a-month” law passed during the Wilder administration, adopted measures for universal background checks, passed a law to require stolen guns to be reported, and became the 19th state to enact Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) designed to keep guns away from individuals with acute mental health problems. They even made good on their pledge to prohibit the carrying of firearms into the House gallery and onto the House floor….

Gun Violence Is More Than Mass Shootings

While mass shootings justifiably capture our attention, especially when children are involved, the majority of U.S. gun deaths occur as the result of suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 54% of all U.S. gun-related deaths in 2020 were suicides while 43% were murders. While the numbers of mass shootings have risen over the last decade, FBI data indicate that your chances of being killed in one of these incidents remain relatively low. In 2020, rifles accounted for 3% of firearm homicides in the U.S. That, of course, is small consolation to the families who lost their loved ones in recent horrific events and should not diminish the fact that the U.S. has the highest rate of gun violence in the world. Gun deaths per capita, while still well below their peak in 1974, are now higher than at any time since the mid-90s. Perhaps Buffalo and Uvalde can alter the political calculus to allow for real change to occur.

The Problem with Semiautomatic Rifles

Both Buffalo and Ulvade involved use of semiautomatic rifles. The AR-15 used in Texas is the bestselling long rifle in the United States, and it has been used in countless mass shootings in the last decade. Shooters using AR-15s and its semiautomatic siblings gunned down 44 defenseless students and teachers at Sandy Hook elementary and Parkland high school, 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas, 23 Walmart shoppers in El Paso, and 36 churchgoers in Pittsburgh and Sutherland Springs, Texas. And while some may consider it a stretch to consider this rifle a “weapon of war,” its character is more consistent with killing many people in a short period of time than it is with shooting a deer in the woods. What makes it especially lethal is the size of its magazines, some of which can hold 100 bullets. Some hunters who favor reasonable gun safety measures are even beginning to apply the word “snowflake” to those who mindlessly link the 2nd amendment to the ability to own one or several of the 15 million AR-15s now in circulation; hunting game has traditionally involved skill and patience, not the discharge of a semiautomatic that can expel its typical clip of 30 rounds as fast as 30 clicks of a computer mouse. This is not your granddad’s hunting rifle.

Can Virginia Be a Model?

If we take what some leaders in both parties have been saying, several simple reforms could be enacted by Washington in 2022, much like those passed in Virginia in 2020. Certainly, part of the solution involves more support for mental health. The Republican mantra has stressed this. So why not dramatically increase funding for school counselors? And pass legislation that has proven effective in 19 states, including Virginia, where courts can issue Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) to remove firearms from persons found to be a risk to self or others? Many mass shooters give advance signals that they intend to act. These “Red Flag” laws can remove the firearm until the potential shooter has addressed his or her emotional challenge.

Criminals will always try to skirt the law and acquire illegal firearms, but why not make this more difficult by adopting tough universal background checks and increasing police presence to remove illegal weapons from circulation? Virginia recently reinstituted its “one-handgun-per-month” law originally passed in the 1990s, a measure that correlated with a reduction of illegal guns flowing into cities in the northeast. And while troubled individuals can find various ways to take their own lives, why not make this more difficult by passing “gun storage” measures to prevent young people from gaining easy access to these firearms? Young people must wait until a certain age and then pass a test before getting behind the wheel of a vehicle where a mistake could mean death or serious injury. Perhaps we should adopt waiting periods between the purchase of a firearm and its possession. After the Parkland shooting, Florida now requires this for rifles. Should people under 21 even be allowed to own semiautomatic weapons? The New York legislature just passed a measure requiring this. Oh, yes, and more funds for mental health treatment!

Reduce Magazine Size

Finally, reduce risks of the carnage in mass shootings by reducing the size of magazines that can be attached to either rifles or pistols. Washington state recently joined California in limiting magazine capacity to 10 rounds. The NRA is both screaming and suing, but such a plan neither “takes away our guns nor prevents self-defense”;  it only makes rifles less conducive to inflicting mass casualties. Uvalde showed that many police are scared to confront a shooter who can discharge so many bullets so quickly. A retired police officer guarding the Buffalo, New York, supermarket where 10 died was outgunned by an 18-year-old with semiautomatic Bushmaster XM-15 E2S. And an armed deputy sheriff at Parkland was not enough to stave off the massacre of 17 students and school staff. A school resource officer with a pistol, while valuable for other reasons, is totally outgunned in these situations, as would be any armed teacher. Forcing the shooter to reload because a clip is exhausted gives law enforcement a better chance at taking out a killer.

States Increasingly Matter

Perhaps recent massacres will prompt Congress to act. A more likely scenario, however, is for the United States to continue to divide itself between states where gun safety advocates have achieved some modicum of success and states where the NRA and gun rights proponents are having their way. Places like California, Massachusetts, and New York will likely further improve their gun safety pedigree. But Texas now allows residents to carry a firearm openly in public without either a permit or training, much less a background check. Iowa, Tennessee, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming recently passed legislation allowing similar forms of permitless carry. To make matters worse, some 40 states prohibit their cities from adopting more gun safety regulations, even if they are massively supported by their citizens. As is the case with many other issues, the United States is increasingly breaking apart in the absence of strong federal direction.

Virginia will be a significant signpost for the rest of the nation. Its population is increasingly suburban, and the rural localities that used to dominate decision-making in Richmond have lost some of their clout. This has made the Commonwealth more hospitable to gun safety measures. Although the newly passed state budget failed to fund former Gov. Northam’s initiative to create a Center for Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention, it nonetheless made $4 million available in each of two years to localities for “evidence-informed” gun violence reduction efforts through the Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention Fund and another $2.5 million per year for law enforcement through a program pushed by the new Speaker, Operation Cease Fire. Now, we will see if this funding will escape the new Governor’s veto pen.

Maintaining the Progress

While the Commonwealth has made progress, it can be reversed in a heartbeat if the state Senate is flipped to Republican control in 2023. In 2021, Republicans won the Governorship and regained control of House of Delegates. With a Democratic Senate standing in the way, the GOP could do little to repeal the previous gains. Bills to eviscerate the ERPO law, prevent localities from enacting ordinances on guns, and eliminate the requirement for a permit to carry a concealed handgun in the Commonwealth, were supported in the House but defeated in the Senate, often by slim margins. In the 2023 election, gun safety victories will be on the ballot. If the Republicans flip one seat in the Virginia Senate, there will be no stopping repeal of gun reform measures. And unlike the mid-2010s, when Democratic Governor McAuliffe freely used his veto pen to prevent legislation that would make it easier to obtain more powerful firearms, a Republican will be sitting in the Governor’s Mansion in 2024 who has consistently proclaimed his aversion to gun control.

The change of one seat in the state Senate could make Virginia policies look like Texas. Elections matter!

David Toscano, author of “Fighting Political Gridlock: How States Shape Our Nation and Our Lives,” published this column on his website. It has been republished on Bacon’s Rebellion with his permission.