Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration launched a review, in the wake of a stalled special session on gun violence this summer, of the recommendations made after the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shootings and found the state has implemented the vast majority of the proposals.
Then-Gov. Tim Kaine announced the formation of the Virginia Tech Review Panel three days after April 16, 2007, when a college student shot and killed 32 people on campus and wounded others before killing himself. After numerous public hearings, touring the sites of the shootings and reviewing the gunman’s mental health records, the panel made 91 recommendations on how to improve safety, including measures on campus security, mental health and gun control.
The Northam administration’s review found that 74 of the proposals have been fully or partially implemented.
Three recommendations have not been implemented. Thirteen require action at the local, federal or international level. And one — having campus police train for active shooter scenarios — was not mandated, but has become a standard practice.
On May 31, a gunman shot and killed 12 people and himself at a Virginia Beach government building.
In response, Northam called for a special session for the General Assembly to take up gun control proposals. Northam pushed for measures such as an assault weapons ban, requiring people to report lost and stolen firearms, and tougher penalties when firearms are left in the presence of minors.
Also on his wish list: universal background checks. Mandating background checks on all gun purchases is one of the three recommendations from the Virginia Tech report that hasn’t been adopted.
But when lawmakers returned to Richmond in July, Republicans used their control of both chambers to shut the session down after just 90 minutes without debating legislation. They moved the dozens of bills to the State Crime Commission, which is in the midst of reviewing gun violence policies. The General Assembly will reconvene Nov. 18 — after the election — to revisit gun legislation.
Democrats criticized their peers across the aisle for avoiding taking tough votes on gun control measures, some of which have broad public support. Since then, they’ve made gun control a top campaign issue.
There’s an election in one month in which all 140 seats of the General Assembly are up for reelection, and Republicans are clinging to a slim majority in the House and Senate.
Republicans emphasized assembling a panel like the Virginia Tech one was the way to go. But since Northam didn’t call for the creation of a similar panel to review the Virginia Beach shooting, Republicans said the crime commission was the next best thing.
In the runup to the July special session, an editorial in The Roanoke Times suggested a review of the 2007 recommendations might be a good idea. Two members of the Northam cabinet had their staffs tackle the project over the summer.
“For the most part, we have implemented them and they’re working well, but we’re always looking to improve them,” said Brian Moran, the state’s secretary of public safety. “It’s an ongoing exercise to keep these laws up to date and meeting regulations.”
The Virginia Tech Panel’s purpose was to perform a review of the university and law enforcement response to the incident and make recommendations. The panel formed by Kaine, a Democrat, was composed of people with mental health and law enforcement expertise, including Tom Ridge, a Republican and the former U.S. secretary of homeland security. Gerald Massengill, retired head of the Virginia State Police, served as chairman of the panel.
After four months of work, the panel issued a 260-page report. An updated report was issued in November 2009.
The panel drew much of its attention to mental health as well as improving methods of sharing information to properly identify those who may be at risk of hurting themselves or others and intervening to provide assistance.
The state never performed a formal review of the report in the 12 years since the shooting until this summer.
Aside from background checks, there were two other ideas that weren’t implemented. One said the head of campus police should be a member of each school’s threat assessment team. The law that passed only says that a member of law enforcement be on the team.
The other said campus police should report all incidents of an issuance of a temporary detention order for students and staff to the school’s office for handling misconduct, the threat assessment team, the counseling center and parents. That can’t be done due to federal privacy laws. Temporary detention orders are obtained when a person is believed to be a threat to themselves or others and require hospitalization.
The new review isn’t thorough. It just lists laws the legislature passed or policies police departments have adopted, for instance. It doesn’t detail how effective the changes have been.
Mental health reform, for instance, has been a painstaking, ongoing process that received even more attention in 2013 after an incident in which Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, was injured showed how dysfunctional the mental health system could be. During a mental health crisis, Deeds’ son attacked him with a knife and then killed himself with a firearm.
Between the Virginia Tech shootings and the Deeds tragedy, funding for mental health shrank along with Virginia’s recession-era budget. There wasn’t enough attention on long-term improvements to the mental health system, which Deeds said he’s now focused on as the leader of a special panel on mental health services.
“Often when we respond after tragedies, we think we addressed the problems, and then we move on,” Deeds said. “We think something worked, but learn there’s more to do. Or we think we moved in the right direction, but we have to retreat and try something else. With mental health, it’s been incremental. I’ve tried to keep the focus on the long term progress for the treatment of those who struggle with mental illness.”
The Virginia Tech Panel didn’t focus much on gun control. Moran said he appreciates the panel may not have wanted to take up a hot-button issue in case it came at the expense of accomplishing other policy goals.
“But 12 years later, we have over 1,000 people dying from guns each year, and we haven’t addressed the epidemic of gun violence from a comprehensive way,” Moran said.
The exercise in examining the Virginia Tech report reaffirmed for Moran that it’s not enough to just enforce the laws on the books.
“Now we know that the vast majority of recommendations were adopted, and we’re more confident than ever that we need gun regulations,” Moran said.