Advocates Believe Special Session on Gun Violence Can Be Successful

Jul 8, 2019

After a mass shooting in Virginia Beach last month, Governor Ralph Northam said he would call state lawmakers back to Richmond to discuss gun violence and common sense ways to prevent it. 

He had offered several bills them during the last legislative session, but none was approved. 

Now, however, advocates believe Northam might actually succeed.

When the governor announced plans for a special session, he pointed out that more than a thousand state residents had been gunned or shot themselves in 2017 – firearms claiming more lives than traffic accidents.  And he scolded lawmakers for failing to put limits on who can get a gun. “Our elementary school children regularly practice lock down drills.  That’s what our society has come to, because we have failed to act on gun violence," Northam said.  "It is wrong that we now view these mass shootings as the normal.”

So Northam will ask lawmakers to give police power to confiscate guns when someone appears to be a danger to himself or others.  Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have authorized Extreme Risk Protection Orders, and, at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, CEO Josh Horwitz says they work. “The bill would allow law enforcement to go to a court and remove firearms from someone who is in crisis. Getting the firearm out of their hands even temporarily for a few days can really save lives," Horwitz argues.

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Lawmakers will also consider banning the sale of silencers, high-capacity magazines and assault weapons. “It makes no sense to give people contemplating mass violence in America the same types of weapons that our soldiers carry on the battlefield,” says Horwitz.

Horwitz and other gun control advocates want everyone who buys a firearm to first have a background check.  Right now, private sales and purchases at gun shows are exempt.  And he hopes the General Assembly will reinstate a limit on how many firearms people can buy. “What we want is to minimize the trafficking of firearms, reinstate the one handgun a month limit as well as make people report when they’ve lost or had a firearm stolen. There’s lots of gun theft in the Commonwealth these days, but there are also people using theft as a cover for gun trafficking.”

These ideas are nothing new. In 2018, Republicans Delegate Nick Freitas of Culpeper argued against any new limits on gun ownership. “It’ll be bump stocks, it’ll be background checks, it will be different kinds of background checks to register the guns, and then after that it’ll semi-automatic rifles.  Then it’ll be semi-automatic handguns, and it’ll be revolvers, shotguns," Freitas argued then.  "You’ll be back with more reasons why we’ve got to infringe on second amendment rights.”

And during last year’s legislative session, GOP Delegate Tommy Wright of Lunenberg insisted laws are not the answer, because guns are not the problem.  He blamed evil in human hearts. “The first solution that I’ll offer is prayer.  It used to be that that was used quite often and people respected it," Wright said.  "Now when you say that your thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the ones who have been murdered, the answer is, ‘Thoughts and prayers are not enough.” I’m going to tell you ladies and gentlemen, prayers are enough!”

Often, legislators who share those views have defeated gun controls in subcommittee, so they never come to a vote by the full House of Delegates or Senate.  This time, however, Northam will insist that everyone vote.  “Let Virginia set an example for the nation, that we can respond to tragedy with action, that we can turn pain into purpose,”  Northam said.

And when it comes to statewide votes, advocate Josh Horwitz says, the political winds favor gun control legislation. “The electorate is supportive of gun violence prevention," according to Horwitz.  "It’s shown in all the polls we’ve seen recently – even in conservative districts.”

He’s confident that public opinion will carry more weight than the National Rifle Association, and whatever happens in the special session he predicts a political reckoning for legislative candidates come November. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.