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Ebbin: Inaction on Gun Violence Risks Lives

In the wake of the mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that claimed 12 lives in May, the worst in the Commonwealth since the Virginia Tech massacre, Governor Ralph Northam called a special session of the General Assembly to address the scourge of gun violence.

In the weeks following, my colleagues and I coordinated with the Northam administration and gun safety advocates to introduce a robust, evidence-based package of legislation to reduce senseless tragedies.

Among the bills in this package was legislation I introduced to ban assault weapons, including firearms holding more than 10 rounds in a magazine, and adapters like bumpstocks and sound suppressors. Also introduced was legislation to allow the court-ordered removal of firearms for a limited period from those exhibiting warning signs that they were a danger to themselves or others (called Extreme Risk Protection Orders), and a bill to close loopholes in Virginia’s background check system.

As elected officials, it is our job to assess problems and solutions to protect the best interests of our constituents. In this case, this means taking immediate action on practical approaches to prevent gun violence. We can do this in a way that still allows Virginians to possess firearms whether for self-defense, hunting, or sport.

Yet, on the morning of July 9, 2019, with the eyes of the nation focused on Richmond, and hundreds of activists and advocates from across our Commonwealth gathered on the sloping lawn of Capitol Square, Virginia Republicans adjourned the special session in less than 90 minutes without any discussion, floor votes or committee consideration.

They summarily sent all gun violence prevention legislation to the Crime Commission for “study.” The General Assembly will not resume the special session or consider gun violence prevention legislation until after this November’s election — conveniently allowing the embattled majority to skip out on votes related to this important issue.

This was a callous and calculated attempt to silence the voices of Virginians. The same legislators who accused Democrats of “rushing into things” used inaccurate, cobbled-together arguments for inaction. This same sort of rhetoric has been piped through the NRA to Richmond Republicans for years; it’s time to set the record straight.

The false argument that claims we can solve the current gun violence epidemic by addressing mental health crises, rather than tackling gun violence head-on, has been perpetuated for years.

In fact, people with a serious mental illness are twelve times more likely to be the victim of violence than to be a perpetrator and only 4 percent of violent acts in the U.S. can be attributed to a person with a mental illness. These issues are critical, and I strongly support more resources for the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders, but attempting to tether gun violence and mental health further stigmatizes the one in four Americans with mental illness and distracts from the real issue.

Republican Speaker Kirk Cox (Republican-Colonial Heights) claimed that harsher penalties and mandatory minimums are our best policy to reduce shootings. This is illogical, in that harsher penalties are meted out only after the fact. After the trigger has been pulled is too late.

Another disproved argument was that Extreme Risk Protection Orders do not provide due process. They have been adopted by 15 states, including red states like Florida and Indiana. They simply allow law enforcement officers and Commonwealth’s Attorneys to petition a court after investigating reports of dangerous behavior. Only if a judge finds merit in the claim could weapons temporarily be removed.

One GOP Senator recently claimed that limiting magazine capacity would not prevent more lives from being lost during mass shootings because of shooters’ ability to quickly reload. However, most mass murderers are not expert marksmen that can reload in the “two tenths of a second” as State Senator Bill DeSteph (Republican-Virginia Beach) claimed. Every second matters.

The gunman who shot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was subdued while trying to reload his gun. At least 6 children at Sandy Hook were able to flee from the killer while he stopped to reload. High capacity magazine bans not only limit the shooters’ ability to inflict carnage — they limit the likelihood of a mass shooting in general. According to a study by Dr. Michael Siegel of Boston University, whether a state has a ban on high capacity magazines is the single best predictor of the mass shooting rate in that state.

The tired line of argument that no bill would have stopped the shooting at Virginia Beach has gained traction online among the far right. It is certainly obvious that no one policy will stop every shooting. Addressing the epidemic of gun violence requires a comprehensive approach, and we owe it to those lost to seek one.

It has even been argued that Virginians aren’t asking for change (or that some outside force is driving change in the Commonwealth). The fact is, Virginians want to take action. Over 90 percent support universal background checks, over 80 percent support extreme risk protection orders, over 60 percent support the ban of high-capacity magazines, assault rifles, and to allow governments to ban guns in local government buildings.

Republican leaders claimed that the decision to “study” these bills was the most measured, least political approach. They compared this decision to the 2007 blue-ribbon panel established by then-Governor Tim Kaine in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting. As Senator Kaine rightly stated, that comparison was “completely bogus.”

The central recommendation of that panel was to close loopholes in the background check system. Republicans refused to do so then, just as they did on July 9th. Factually speaking, the GOP doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and their politically-motivated scheme is both an abdication of power and a cowardly decision to unnecessarily risk Virginians’ lives.

Richmond has not seen a debate so contentious or divisive in the General Assembly since Medicaid expansion. On that issue, after years of political pressure, several Republicans reached across the aisle providing the critical votes, understanding rightly that their votes could help save lives and protect Virginians. Now the question is: what is stopping these legislators from doing the same to limit gun violence?

Note: Ebbin is the co-chair of the General Assembly Gun Violence Prevention Caucus. He represents the 30th District of the Senate comprised of parts of Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax County.