U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine pushed back against Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly who say their plan to have the state crime commission review gun control legislation is similar to what he did as governor following the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.
Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, called lawmakers back to Richmond on Tuesday to take up gun legislation in the wake of the May 31 shooting at a municipal building in Virginia Beach that left 12 dead.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly quickly adjourned and moved to have the legislation considered by the Virginia State Crime Commission.
Republicans compared their plan to Kaine assembling a panel after the Virginia Tech shootings, but Democrats believe it’s a strategy to subdue gun control ideas.
“This is sadly not a surprise,” said Kaine, a Democrat who was governor from 2006 to 2010. “I saw in the aftermath of the horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech, my Republican legislature would work with me on mental health issues, they would work with me on campus safety protocols, they would work with me on information sharing, but what they wouldn’t work with me on was common sense gun safety measures.”
Still, the chairman of the panel Kaine appointed, Gerald Massengill, retired head of the Virginia State Police, said Thursday it was a “prudent decision” to have the crime commission look at the legislation. “Gun safety is one of the highest priorities when it comes to public safety, and they’re going to have to examine some issues that will be controversial,” Massengill said.
Democrats introduced legislation including universal background checks, banning military-style assault weapons and allowing localities to prohibit firearms at government meetings.
Republicans filed bills that would have imposed mandatory minimums for firearm offenses and allow local government employees to carry a concealed weapon at work if they have a concealed handgun permit.
Republican leaders said the state crime commission will review the legislation when it meets in the fall. It won’t review the Virginia Beach shooting to identify failures or make recommendations specific to that incident. The commission has 13 members, including nine lawmakers — of which six are Republicans — as well as three citizens and a state official.
Following the crime commission’s work, the General Assembly will reconvene Nov. 18 — after the general election in which all 140 legislative seats are up for election. Republicans are trying to maintain their narrow majorities; Democrats hope to regain control after a long time as the minority party.
“What we are trying to do is introduce an evidence-based process with calm deliberation to look at the issue, the underlying causes, and what we can truly do to actually make a difference in making communities safer across Virginia,” Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, chairman of the crime commission, said Tuesday.
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 before killing himself.
The panel’s purpose was to perform a review of the university and law enforcement response to the incident and make recommendations. The panel was composed of people with mental health and law enforcement expertise, including Tom Ridge, the former U.S. secretary of homeland security.
The panel visited the sites of the shootings, reviewed the gunman’s mental health records and held multiple public meetings. Kaine was praised for his compassion toward the families and insistence safety improvements emerge from the tragedy.
Four months later, the panel issued a 260-page report. It included more than 70 recommendations for lawmakers to consider. An updated report was issued in November 2009.
A formal review of the report has never been done, so it’s unknown how many recommendations have been properly implemented and their effectiveness.
In a letter last month to General Assembly staff, Dr. Hughes Melton, commissioner of behavioral health and developmental services, wrote, “The vast majority of the recommendations were acted upon in some form.” A department spokeswoman said Melton only did an informal review of mental health recommendations in the report. An attachment to the letter lists mental health related laws and funding enacted after 2007, but it doesn’t go into detail about how effective the laws have been.
The panel’s report was far broader, covering recommendations on mental health laws, information privacy, gun purchases and campus gun policies, emergency medical services responses, medical examiner policies, communication with families and other areas.
Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, told the Senate Courts Committee on Tuesday that few recommendations were enacted into law.
“They didn’t generate the political will to make a lot of lasting change in the laws in the commonwealth of Virginia,” Deeds said.
In the years after the Virginia Tech shootings, gun rights, not restrictions, grew stronger. Mental health was the biggest issue to emerge. The report recommended colleges have threat assessment teams led by law enforcement that include mental health practitioners, administrators and academics to identify students and staff who may be at risk of harming themselves or others. The teams have served as a model nationwide.
“We didn’t want Virginia Tech to become just a gun issue,” Massengill said. “There were too many other issues that the panel also tried to address.”
As far as firearms, as governor, Kaine closed a loophole by requiring anyone ordered by a court to get mental health treatment be added to a state police database of people barred from buying guns.
Lori Haas, the Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, noted there has been no movement on the report’s recommendation that Virginia require background checks on all gun sales, including at gun shows. Haas’ daughter was shot twice at Virginia Tech in 2007 and survived.
Efforts to fully close the loophole have failed in the legislature, with gun debates often dividing along regional and partisan lines. Following the Virginia Tech shootings, the Virginia State Crime Commission didn’t recommend legislation for universal background checks to the General Assembly.
Academic research suggests background checks constrain the illegal gun market and have potential to reduce crime. But that implementation has been inconsistent. Kaine said lawmakers don’t need to study universal background checks, which have broad public support.
“It’s the absence of courage and backbone that’s getting in their way,” he said.
Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, expressed concern about the legislation going to the crime commission because she said typically gun control bills aren’t well received. Kaine said Republicans are using it “as a dodge” to seriously consider “common sense gun safety.”
Massengill said he hopes the legislation won’t be viewed through the narrow lens of whether the Virginia Beach shootings could have been prevented or contained.
“Gun violence and the proliferation of guns have gotten out of control in this country,” he said. “We’ve got to do something about it, but we want to make sure what we’re doing is worthwhile.”
Massengill said the extreme risk protection orders Democrats proposed interested him the most. They would allow a police officer or prosecutor to petition a judge for a warrant to seize legally owned guns if someone is determined to be an immediate threat to themselves or others. These laws have quickly spread across states since the high school shooting last year in Parkland, Florida. Only a handful of studies have suggested they are promising in preventing gun deaths, especially suicides, but it's still too early to fully measure their effectiveness of the laws.
“There’s going to have to be some give from the gun rights and gun control people,” Massengill said.
When the Democrats’ bills come up in General Assembly panels, there is little to no debate, and Republicans quickly kill them and move on. Massengill said he wants to remain hopeful that the crime commission will give all the legislation a careful review.
“A lot of this has to do with the survivors and families of the Virginia Tech shooting who continue to push this issue,” he said. “It’s not just the NRA controlling the conversation anymore. These people are being listened to now.”