General Assembly adjourns with no action on gun bills

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, gavels the House of Delegates into session July 9 in Richmond.

The Virginia State Crime Commission will meet this week to review dozens of proposals aimed at reducing gun violence, but it won’t deliver a report to the General Assembly until after the election.

The crime commission will spend Monday and Tuesday listening to legislators present their bills and to comments from the public. The commission will make recommendations for the legislature to consider when it returns to Richmond Nov. 18, two weeks after the election for all 140 seats in the General Assembly.

The crime commission is coming together more than two months after a shooting in Virginia Beach left 12 people dead. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, called a special session in July for legislators to come up with proposals on how to curb gun deaths. Republicans used their slim majority in the legislature to adjourn after just 90 minutes and send the bills to the crime commission.

Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, boasted at a meeting with political activists in Roanoke County following the special session how Republicans devised a plan to “neutralize the conversation” until after the election.

“We came up with a strategy that would neutralize the issues he was trying to make campaign issues,” Head said of Northam. “We needed to make it go away.”

Republicans called the special session an election-year stunt to steer attention from Northam’s racist yearbook photo scandal. They said sending the legislation to the crime commission was a way to take a levelheaded approach to complex issues. Democrats called that a political stunt as well.

“Republicans abandoned their responsibilities and let down Virginians by quickly adjourning the special session on gun violence without considering any solutions,” Kathryn Gilley, spokeswoman for the House Democratic caucus, said in a statement. “We cannot keep waiting until after elections to talk about gun violence just to save Republicans from taking tough votes.”

Legislators have filed more than 70 bills, including a ban on military-style assault weapons, reinstating the state’s lapsed one-handgun-a-month law, mandatory minimum sentences for firearm offenses and the ability of localities to regulate firearms.

Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, is skeptical the gun control proposals mostly coming from Democrats would receive the support of the commission.

“Have you looked at who’s on the crime commission?” he said.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, is the chair, and Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, is the vice chair of the commission, and they’re both staunch proponents of gun rights. They’re joined by four more Republican legislators as well as three Democrats. The commission also includes three public safety professionals appointed by the governor and a representative from the attorney general’s office.

“What we’re looking at is the issue of mass killings and gun violence, and we’re going to look at that from a data-driven standpoint,” Obenshain said. “I am confident that we will emerge with real policy proposals that are going to make Virginia a safer place.”

Below are some of the proposals.

Red flag law

Democrats and a Republican have both introduced versions of a law that would allow courts to temporarily ban people from possessing firearms if there are clear signs that they pose a danger to themselves or others.

Connecticut was the first state to pass this type of law in 1999, but they’ve grown in popularity following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year. Because so many red flag laws have been enacted just in recent years, research is slim. However, a handful of studies suggest they are effective in reducing gun deaths, particularly suicides.

In the version proposed by Democrats, a prosecutor or law enforcement officer would file a petition with a judge with evidence that someone is at risk of harming himself or others by use of a firearm. A judge may issue an “emergency substantial risk order,” requiring the person to relinquish firearms to law enforcement. The order lasts for two weeks, during which time the person will appear before a judge. If the judge determines the person is a threat, a “substantial risk order” will be issued, which can last for up to 180 days. A prosecutor or police officer can request that be extended an unlimited number of times.

A bill from Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, puts in place more steps before firearms are removed. Under his bill, a law enforcement officer who believes someone to be at risk of harming to himself or others would petition a judge. The judge would issue an order allowing law enforcement to take the person into custody and then attend a court hearing. If the court determines a person is a threat, an “emergency severe threat order” would be issued for up to 14 days, during which time the person has to transfer firearms to a custodian or hand them over to law enforcement. Firearms will be returned when the order expires.

Local authority

Edwards submitted legislation for the General Assembly to give authority to localities to adopt ordinances to regulate the possession, carrying, storage or transporting of firearms, ammunition or other components in their localities.

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored a bill that would allow localities to prohibit firearms in government buildings. Edwards also filed a narrower bill that would allow localities to prohibit firearms at meetings of local governing bodies.

Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, has a bill that would prohibit a locality from adopting or enforcing any workplace rule that prevents or restricts an employee of the locality from possessing or carrying a concealed handgun at the locality’s workplace if that employee has a concealed handgun permit. A bill from Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, says if a local government were to prohibit employees from carrying a concealed firearm at work, it has to provide law enforcement or armed security at the workplace.

Urban gun violence

Mass shootings make up a sliver of the gun deaths in Virginia. Most gun-related deaths are suicides, followed by malicious shootings.

House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, in an effort to curb the everyday gun violence, wants localities to introduce programs inspired by Operation Ceasefire. It’s a strategy police and community leaders use to identify those most at risk of shooting someone or being shot, convey why the violence needs to stop, offer support, and promise swift and tough crackdowns on the groups that continue shooting. Research has shown it to be effective in significantly reducing shootings if rigorously implemented.

Background checks

Democrats are carrying legislation that would require background checks on all firearm transactions. Anyone who sells a firearm to another person without obtaining the required background check is guilty of a Class 6 felony. The legislation includes exceptions, such as transferring guns between family members.

Researchers mostly agree an improved background check system would reduce urban gun violence and mass shootings, although hard evidence of their effectiveness is limited. Background checks need to be properly implemented and enforced for them to work as intended.

Mandatory minimums

Republican lawmakers filed more than a dozen bills that would impose or increase mandatory minimum sentences for firearm offenses.

For instance, one bill proposes increasing from three to five years for a first offense and from five to 10 years for a second or subsequent offenses the mandatory minimum sentences for use or display of a firearm while committing certain felonies. Another would impose a mandatory minimum of three years the first time and five years additional times someone is convicted of committing certain felonies while carrying a concealed firearm.

Evidence that mandatory minimums for firearm offenses directly reduces crime is thin. Some research indicates that swiftness and certainty of punishment are better deterrents to crime than the severity of the punishment.

Bans

Bills from Democrats would ban military-style assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, suppressors and trigger activators. Possession of these firearms or devices after July 1, 2020, would be a Class 6 felony, which could result in jail time between one and five years or less than a year and a $2,500 fine.

While politicians are more likely to focus on so-called assault weapons following shootings, growing research suggests it’s the magazine capacity that may increase the death toll because shooters can fire more rounds before they are stopped. Data shows that when magazines are regulated, they’re used less often in crimes. Virginia has no limits on magazine capacity.

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