Barely six weeks after a handgun massacre claimed the lives of 12 innocent victims in Virginia Beach, state Sen. Bill Stanley arrived in Richmond ready for Tuesday’s special session of the Virginia General Assembly.
Among dozens of items on that agenda: Measures to ban silencers in the commonwealth, and extended magazines for semi-automatic rifles and pistols; and repeal of a 2004 Virginia law that banned localities from almost any regulation of firearms in municipal-owned parks and most buildings.
All of those seemed directly germane to the tragic events of May 31, when a former Virginia Beach city employee legally carried two semi-automatic pistols, a silencer and extended magazines into a municipal buildings and opened fire.
Other measures — none of them offered by Stanley — were more obliquely related: Universal background checks for gun buyers, and re-institution of the one-handgun-a-month limit that the legislature repealed in 2012.
But Stanley, R-Franklin, showed up mindful of another problem: Threats on social media.
Among six pieces of legislation the senator filed for the special session was a bill that would require companies that own social media platforms to report threats of violence made on them against any person in Virginia to the “appropriate law enforcement authority.” If the companies did not, they could be held civilly liable for any violence that resulted.
One problem with this kind of measure is, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter operate internationally, while Virginia is a distinct and relatively minuscule political subdivision. As billions of messages fly around the globe daily, nasty ones are ubiquitous and social media users are mobile.
Think of it this way: Whom should Facebook notify if someone from Germany traveling in China posts a message threatening a Roanoker vacationing in Brazil?
State Sen. John Edwards called the measure “totally impractical.”
“It’s like saying that if someone makes a threat in a phone call, the phone company would have a duty to report it to the police,” noted Edwards, D-Roanoke. That would require the company monitor every call, which in itself would be illegal, Edwards added.
That’s why I had some questions about the bill for Stanley last week. I called him Thursday, and again Friday, but he didn’t call back. I also wanted to ask him why he filed that particular bill.
After all, threats traded via Facebook or Twitter seem like an abstraction compared to guns blasting or bullets flying in one of Virginia’s city halls, and blood subsequently flowing from a dozen slain people.
Was the measure sincere, as Stanley had claimed in a pre-special session press release? Or was it merely a dig at Virginia’s gun control movement, and one its most outspoken advocates, who made a couple of “threats” to Stanley on social media four years ago?
The source of those was Andy Parker of Henry County, one of Stanley’s constituents. It happened in October 2015, and the senator’s reaction made statewide news that lasted for months.
In August 2015, Parker’s daughter, Alison, was ambushed by a maniac and gunned down while she worked on a feature story for WDBJ-TV (Channel 7), where she was a reporter. Her colleague Adam Ward was murdered, too. Vicki Gardner, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce, was shot and seriously wounded.
That’s how Parker got involved with gun control — as a grieving parent. And later that fall, after Stanley bragged about his National Rifle Association rating on his Facebook page, Parker responded churlishly.
About two months later, late one October night, Parker sent Stanley a private message on Facebook: “I’m going to be your worst nightmare you little bastard.” Stanley read it the next morning in his Franklin County home. According to a later special prosecutor’s report, Stanley called Capitol Police in Richmond within minutes of having read it.
Later that day, Parker put a comment on Stanley’s Facebook page calling the senator a “sorry little coward. You didn’t even have the decency to reach out and offer a lame condolence after my daughter Alison Bailey [Parker] was murdered in your district. When you see me again you best walk the other way lest I beat your little ass with my bare hands.”
Stanley reported that to police, too.
Though Parker quickly apologized, Stanley got extra police patrols near his house after those messages. He also got a state police escort on Election Day 2015. He claimed he had obtained an application for a concealed handgun permit.
By January 2016, the issue had been kicked from Capitol Police to Virginia State Police to Franklin County’s commonwealth’s attorney and then to a Franklin County judge. The judge appointed a special prosecutor, Danville Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Newman, to investigate.
The following April, Newman concluded no charges were warranted because, basically, the “threats” were schoolyard sticks-and-stones stuff — like millions of other nasty comments that get posted on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and other social media platforms every single day.
In other words, it took six months to settle one case based on a few threatening words directed at Stanley by a single social media user, Parker. And the conclusion was no crime had occurred at all.
Just imagine if Virginia law enforcement had to probe every threatened spanking, or worse, against Virginians on social media. Those companies would have to hire millions of monitors to collect the “threats.” The commonwealth could need tens of thousands more police officers and prosecutors to analyze them. And probably more judges and courtrooms, too.
Stanley’s been around long enough to understand such implications. And that’s what suggests even he knew his proposal was ridiculous.
It was a goof — which is how Republicans treated the entire special session, which they shut down without any action, after about 90 minutes.
No wonder Parker sat in one of the Capitol galleries, shooting lawmakers the bird.