It’s a shame, but really not surprising, that it took another mass shooting to focus Virginia lawmakers’ attention on gun violence.
In the wake of the May 31 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that left 13 people dead, Gov. Ralph Northam has called a rare summer special session July 9 in hopes of encouraging the General Assembly to focus solely on gun legislation and what – if anything—might be done to keep Virginians safe from gunfire.
Given the hundreds of thousands of guns already in the commonwealth, limiting deaths and injuries by gunfire can seem like an impossible goal. For starters, we have limited information about the extent of the problem in Virginia.
Localities and the state track gun deaths but not gun injuries, for instance, and even the numbers state and local governments do track are not well known. Few people outside of law enforcement, for example, know that Fauquier County had 14 gun-related deaths in 2017, while Prince William County had 21.
The number mostly reflects suicide deaths via gunfire, which are usually not reported in the local media. In fact, about 60 percent of the 1,028 gun deaths in Virginia in 2017 were the result of suicide, according to the state medical examiner’s annual report.
We do know, however, that deaths by gunfire are on the rise. In 2017, the most recent for which statistics are available, showed the highest number of firearm fatalities since 1968, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There were 39,773 gun deaths in the U.S. in 2017, up by more than 1,000 from the year before. Nearly two-thirds were suicides.
Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means localities cannot pass their own gun regulations for the most part. And gun bills that do come before the Virginia General Assembly get little media attention because they are usually doomed from the start.
All are funneled through tiny Republican-controlled House and Senate subcommittees where they are swiftly defeated in party-line votes in 7:30 a.m. meetings, mostly attended only by the legislators themselves and a few gun industry lobbyists. State Del. John Bell, D-87th, recently called these lobbyists “the most powerful people in the room.”
From our perspective, the mystery shrouding the full extent of gun violence in our communities is reason enough for lawmakers to focus their attention solely on gun violence. Bell sits on the six-member House of Delegates subcommittee where he says about 300 gun-related bills have been killed since 2016. He says Virginia could benefit from simply committing to more closely studying gun violence and mass shootings in particular.
Bell, a retired Air Force officer, likened the task to what the military does to better understand accidental deaths in their ranks. Each accident is carefully studied to identify patterns of behavior and events that military officials might be able to identify in time to prevent the next tragedy.
Bell said he would like either the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly’s research arm, or one of the state’s universities to commit to studying Virginia’s gun violence, with the help of state funding.
That seems like a reasonable goal. But it’s hardly the only reasonable step Virginia lawmakers might consider in their July special session. Let’s hope they fully commit to wrestling with this deadly issue and finding common ground.