Soon after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, then-Gov. Tim Kaine did something that few other governors confronted with a mass shooting have done: He put together a special commission to study what happened and make recommendations for how to prevent another such horror. The commission he assembled is often described as a “blue-ribbon” panel, although there are no prizes to be given away for delving into these types of mass murders. Still, the phrase makes the point well enough. Kaine appointed some serious people to do a serious job.
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. 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. It also made a long list of recommendations, on seemingly every aspect of the shooting.
On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the shooting in 2017, we called on then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe to conduct an audit: How many of those recommendations had been acted on? We had no idea, but it seemed a reasonable question. Nothing happened.
In May, Virginia once again became the scene of an all-too-frequent mass shooting, this time at the Virginia Beach municipal building. In response, Gov. Ralph Northam called a special session of the General Assembly to address the state’s gun laws. Once again, we called on the governor — this time a different governor — to conduct an audit of the Tech report recommendations. After all, before we set about responding to yet another mass shootings — either by passing new laws the Democratic governor wanted or blocking those proposals as Republicans wanted — shouldn’t we know what had already been done or not done? Once again, that seemed a reasonable question — and one that didn’t appear to have a partisan advantage one way or another. This time something happened.
On Monday, we got a phone call from two of Northam’s cabinet members — Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran and Secretary of Health and Human Services Daniel Carey. To our surprise, they announced that the Northam administration had just concluded the audit we had called for. “You asked a fair question and deserved a fair answer so that’s what we set about doing,” Carey said.
Just as we had no idea what the answers would be, neither did Moran and Carey when they started. “It was a pretty laborious project, but one I think worthwhile because it’s educated us,” Moran said. After about six weeks of what Moran called “a lot of good staff work,” here’s what they found: Out of the Tech report’s 91 recommendations, the state has fully or partially adopted 74 of them. Thirteen recommendations were aimed at local or federal governments, and so were outside the state’s purview. One recommendation has never been mandated but has become an industry standard anyway — that campus police train for how to deal with active shooters. That left just three recommendations that haven’t been acted on.
That’s a track record that surprised us — and underscores just how important that report was. Many of the recommendations dealt with mental health services and most of those were adopted in 2008, in the first General Assembly session following the shooting. No one pretends that the state’s mental health system is completely fixed, but Virginians should be reassured that the state did not leave the Tech report’s mental health recommendations on the shelf. “I was impressed by the number of serious recommendations that were adopted,” Carey said. So what were the three recommendations not acted on? Two are relatively technical. One said that “the head of campus police” should be a member of each school’s “threat assessment team.” The law that passed says only that a member of law enforcement should be on the team. That, Moran said, isn’t exactly what was recommended but “accomplishes the same thing.” Another called on campus police to “report all incidents of an issuance of temporary detention orders for students (and staff) to Judicial Affairs, the threat assessment team, the counseling center, and parents.” That, Moran said, hasn’t been done because it runs afoul of federal privacy laws.
The third one, though, is a big one and one that still animates our politics today: “Virginia should require background checks for all firearms sales, including those at gun shows.” To the Tech commission, weighted heavily with people from the law enforcement world, it seemed obvious that we should make sure we’re not selling guns to people who aren’t legally entitled to have them. Others, though, see background checks as an infringement upon their rights. To Moran and Carey, this audit underscores the urgency of passing those background checks — because virtually everything else that the Tech commission recommended has already been done.
Northam, of course, proposed background checks as part of a package of gun-related measures introduced at the July special session. Others called for limiting how many bullets a gun could shoot at once, and allowing courts to temporarily seize guns from people deemed to be a threat. The Republican-controlled General Assembly took no action on any of them, and quickly adjourned until November. Instead, the legislature directed the State Crime Commission to do a study of its own. The outcome of any gun-related bills is really up to voters — more accurately, voters in a handful of swing districts in this November’s legislative elections. If voters keep Republicans in control of the General Assembly, don’t expect any of Northam’s proposals to get passed. If Democrats win majorities, then they likely will be. If that happens, the General Assembly will finally be responding to recommendation VI-2 of the Tech commission report — more than a dozen years after it was first made.