RICHMOND — For more than a decade Lori Haas, whose daughter survived after being shot during the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, has been advocating for universal background checks.
“I’m committed to doing this work, because I’ve met too many survivors to turn my back,” Haas said Monday. “There are policies that we know can reduce violence.”
At a meeting of the Virginia State Crime Commission earlier that day, a researcher said universal background checks — especially combined with other policies — could significantly reduce gun homicides in Virginia. Haas sat in the audience taking notes.
The crime commission, a bipartisan advisory body that studies criminal justice issues and makes recommendations to the General Assembly, is meeting to tackle the issue of how to reduce gun violence in the wake of the Virginia Beach shooting in May that killed 12 people. The commission listened to seven hours of presentations from medical and public safety professionals and researchers about gun-related incidents in Virginia as well as policies that can reduce injuries and deaths. The commission will meet again Tuesday, when legislators will present bills and the public will have the opportunity to comment.
The commission doesn’t plan to vote this week on policy proposals to recommend them to the General Assembly. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, the chairman of the committee, said it is his hope the commission will have a report with recommendations to present to the legislature before it convenes Nov. 18.
“The work of the commission has not even begun,” Obenshain said.
Republicans organized to have the crime commission handle this topic after abruptly ending a special session called by Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, on July 9. Legislators have filed 78 bills, including a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, increasing mandatory minimum sentences for firearm offenses and restoring the state’s law to only allow people to purchase one handgun a month. Republicans said the crime commission could properly review the legislation to determine which ones are backed by research.
Northam sent a letter to the commission Monday saying the assertion that more study is needed for some proposals is “inaccurate and inexcusable.” He cited background checks for all gun sales, which a panel created after the Virginia Tech massacre recommended, as a policy supported by research. In the past, the crime commission has not endorsed universal background checks.
“These proposals do not need further study,” Northam wrote.
Claire Boine, a research scholar at Boston University, recommended enacting universal background checks along with giving law enforcement discretion in deciding whether to grant a concealed carry permit and prohibiting people convicted of violent misdemeanors from purchasing firearms. These three policies together, she said, would reduce gun homicides in Virginia by about one-third.
Boine said a ban on assault weapons would not be effective in significantly reducing gun homicides. They are rarely used to kill people, she said, and most people who acquire them are recreational gun owners.
“It might send the symbol we blame lawful gun owners for most crimes when most people using assault weapons are not responsible for crimes,” Boine said of an assault weapons ban.
Over 72% of homicides in Virginia involve guns. There were 347 gun-related homicides last year, according to Virginia Department of Health data. Men are over four times more likely to be a victim of gun-related homicide than women. Black men are victims of gun-related homicides at a rate of more than 11 times that of white men.
Last year, 674 people died from killing themselves with a firearm. Gun-related suicides make up about two-thirds of gun-related deaths in Virginia. Boine said the limited research available about red flag laws shows they are useful in reducing suicide rates. These laws allow courts to temporarily ban people from possessing firearms if there are clear signs that they pose a danger to themselves or others.
At numerous times throughout the day, commission members asked presenters for more detailed data that did not exist.
For instance, Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, wanted to know the percentage of guns recovered in crimes that were illegally and legally obtained. Michael Boyer, a lawyer with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said he didn’t know if that information existed.
Obenshain wanted to know if there were statistics on crimes that had been committed by people who purchased more than one handgun a month. Lt. Keenon Hook with the Virginia State Police said that information didn’t exist.
One fact that David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, wanted to highlight is that there are hundreds of millions of guns in the United States, and few of them are used to kill a human being.
“As bad as homicide and gun violence is in this country and states and cities, it remains statistically an extremely rare event,” Kennedy said.
A small number of highly dangerous people driven by beefs with others are responsible for most of the “awful, grinding everyday gun violence,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy is the architect behind a strategy known as Operation Ceasefire, which has been around for two decades. It’s a strategy police and community leaders use to identify those most at risk of shooting someone or being shot, convey why they need to stop shooting, offer support, and promise swift and tough crackdowns on every member of the next group that puts a body on the ground. Research shows this strategy, when effectively and consistently implemented, can significantly reduce gun violence.
House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, has proposed introducing Ceasefire-like programs in Virginia.
“If this works so well and is so obviously the right answer, why do we not have it in every city already?” Bell asked Kennedy.
Kennedy said it’s important that elected officials care enough to sustain it.
Gilbert said he has reached out to some Democrats about his idea, but none have expressed an interest in working with him on the legislation.
Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said after the meeting that she found Kennedy’s presentation “enlightening.” She added that there were other ideas, like universal background checks and red flag laws, that are also effective.
“There’s no reason we can’t have several pieces of legislation go to the floor of the General Assembly for a vote,” Herring said.