One week from today, the General Assembly convenes in Richmond for the special session that Gov. Ralph Northam has called in the wake of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach.
Democrats will try to pass new laws about guns. Republicans will try to block them. This is as predictable as the sun rising in the east and the Washington Nationals bullpen blowing the game. We could write prose that would make angels weep — on either side of the issue — but it would make no difference to the legislators who gather in Richmond.
Some may find this frustrating, but it’s also instructive: How the two parties feel about guns is one of the key things that separate Democrats into Democrats and Republicans into Republicans. If voters believe that we need some of the laws that Northam is proposing, they have a ready mechanism before them: They can go to the polls this fall, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot, and elect a Democratic majority. Then they’ll get those laws. If they don’t believe restricting access to firearms is the answer to the alarming frequency of mass shootings — or even shootings that aren’t so mass — then they have the same option, just in reverse: They can go to the polls and elect an even bigger Republican majority that will continue to quash those proposals.
There’s a fallacy to that easy logic, of course: Most districts aren’t competitive. This isn’t the result of partisan gerrymandering, but realignment and residential patterns. There is partisan gerrymandering in some places, of course, but that doesn’t explain why Arlington and Alexandria votes 75% or more for Democrats while many counties in Southwest Virginia vote for Republicans by equal margins. This is simply what author Bill Bishop has called “the big sort.” You couldn’t draw a Republican district in the most urban parts of Northern Virginia or a Democratic district in far Southwest Virginia if you tried. The Arlington voter who’s sickened by shootings and wants more gun laws — and the Abingdon voter outraged at any restrictions on firearms — doesn’t really have a choice. Oh, they can vote for the candidate of their choice, of course, and that candidate will win, but that 76th or 77th percentage point for a Democratic candidate in Northern Virginia or a Republican candidate in Southwest Virginia really doesn’t make a difference except to make everybody in the majority there feel good. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association member in Arlington, or the Everytown for Gun Safety supporter in Abingdon is really out of luck.
The real decisions will be made in a relative handful of districts that, through sheer accident of geography, or court-ordered redistricting, actually are competitive. Very few of those are in this part of the state, by the way. Realistically, the only competitive district we have is the House of Delegates seat in the New River Valley now held by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg.
We digress, though, because our point today isn’t about how legislators are sharply divided, but to point out — yet again — one place where Democrats and Republicans might actually be able to agree.
They could both vote in favor of an audit of the 2007 state commission that investigated the Virginia Tech shootings. A refresher: After that horror — at the time, the largest peacetime mass shooting in American history — then-Gov. Tim Kaine did something remarkable. He ordered a study of what happened and what could be done to prevent another such mass shooting.
Kaine put together an all-star commission. It was led by Gerald Massengill, the retired superintendent of Virginia State Police. It included an FBI expert in violent behavioral problems. It included a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University. It included Diane Strickland, a retired circuit court judge from Roanoke and an expert on mental health commitments. It included a lot of other experts in their fields. Most notably, Kaine, a Democrat, cast politics aside when he put together the panel. He recruited Tom Ridge, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, and the first Secretary of Homeland Security in the administration of George W. Bush — who, we should remember, was regarded by Democrats at the time as a complete ogre. Kaine put a former Bush cabinet member on the panel anyway.
Some wondered whether the panel would really ask the hard questions. The 260-page report that the panel issued put those concerns to rest for most people. It was an exhaustive account that did not spare criticism. Nor did it echo what others had already said — a sign of intellectual independence. The panel’s report made 72 recommendations on everything from the role of police on a college campus to how Montgomery County should operate its emergency services. In between, there were more controversial recommendations on gun laws, privacy laws and Virginia’s mental health system. How many of those were ever acted on? For those unknown number of recommendations that were acted on, have they worked?
We don’t know. Some were, but nobody really knows how many because 12 years later, there’s never been any kind of formal check-up to find out. On the 10th anniversary of the Tech shooting, we called on then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe to either reconvene the commission or appoint a new one to conduct an audit of those 72 recommendations. He did not. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year, we called on Northam to do the same thing. He did not. In the aftermath of the shooting in Virginia Beach, we again called on Northam to order a review. He has not. But the General Assembly could.
The fact that Virginia endured the massacre at Virginia Tech, convened a panel to make recommendations, and then has completely failed to check up on them is simply inexplicable. It seems akin to political malpractice. Why wouldn’t both Democrats and Republicans want to know?
Knowing what happened to those 72 recommendations isn’t a solution to mass shootings, of course. Many of those recommendations were unique to a shooting on a college campus and wouldn’t apply to other situations. But some might. Again, we just don’t know.
They say a lawyer should never ask a question in court that he or she doesn’t already know the answer to. Is that’s what’s happening here? Are both parties afraid of what they might find? Or have they simply moved on and filed away the Tech shooting as a distant and now-irrelevant part of history? If so, we have a very different problem.