What should we make of this week’s raucous roundtable in Abingdon on the state’s gun laws? Here are eight takeaways:
1. When did we become so emotional about guns? One side fears them; the other side seems to fetishize them. It wasn’t always like this. Guns were once just tools, no different from hammers or chainsaws — useful in some situations, dangerous when used improperly, but not something to get hysterical about. What changed and why? Can’t we have a rational conversation about an inanimate object?
2. Do people really think their rowdy behavior helps their case? One man chased after Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, and shouted “you’re a fraud!” Really? Is that really how people were taught to behave? Is that what we want our children to emulate? And, purely as a technical matter, how exactly is Hurst a “fraud”? You need not like his politics, but he seems quite sincere about them. Better to simply say he’s wrong — and do it in a civil manner.
3. What exactly are “gun rights”? One woman complained that Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposals “are chipping away at people’s gun rights.” What, exactly, are those rights? Yes, there’s the Second Amendment, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be laws regulating guns since a lot of those laws already exist. Do those laws restrict gun rights? If so, the courts disagree. Is any regulation an infringement of “gun rights”? A comparison: The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, but there are laws governing libel and defamation. It guarantees freedom of assembly, but you still need a parade permit to march down the sidewalk. Are those an infringement of rights? If not, why are certain gun laws an infringement of “gun rights”? Where’s the line? Are there any regulations that gun rights advocates would support?
4. Are there any laws that would have prevented the mass shooting in Virginia Beach? State Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell County, is basically right: “There is nothing in Virginia Beach, nothing in our law, nothing in our toolbox, nothing you’re offering now that would have saved those people in Virginia Beach.” A ban on high-capacity magazines, such as what Northam is proposing, might have lessened the carnage. Or not. The gunman there purchased his weapon legally, and there apparently was nothing in his background that made anyone suspicious until he showed up and started shooting. The things Northam is proposing might be quite reasonable (or not, depending on your point of view): Universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons, restricting people to one handgun purchase a month. But they wouldn’t have prevented the gunman there from using a .45 caliber handgun to kill a dozen people one Friday afternoon in summer. So what would?
5. Why are mass shootings so common in the United States? Yes, they happen other places — Christchurch, New Zealand, is one tragic example. But the frequency of such slaughters is a uniquely American phenomenon. Why is this? And why are they now so common? Eight years elapsed between the Luby’s Cafeteria shooting in Killeen, Texas, in 1991 that killed 23 people and the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado that killed 13. Then another eight years went by before the Virginia Tech horror in 2007. But now we have five years in a row where each year, more than 10 people have been killed in unrelated mass shootings. And 10 is such an arbitrarily high figure that it doesn’t even encompass the horrible church slaughter in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 that killed “only” nine people. The last time 10 or more people were killed in a mass shooting in Great Britain? 2010. In Australia? 1996. In Canada. 1989. Here in the U.S., we’ve now had five such massacres in the past year and a half — in an office in Virginia Beach, in a nightclub in Thousand Oaks, California, in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, in high schools in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Parkland, Florida. Why is this happening? And what would prevent it? Why does neither side want to talk about what the root causes of that might be?
6. What if guns are neither the cause nor the solution? Guns can’t be the cause because we’ve always had a lot of guns, but now some among us use them much more frequently to commit atrocities. But are more of them really the solution? When one woman at the Abingdon session said she was worried about violence, one man yelled at her to get a gun. Has our society so deteriorated that the only solution is to adopt a Wild West culture where everyone goes around armed? The U.S. already has the highest rates of gun ownership in the world — three times higher per capita than that of Canada, a country otherwise very much like us. Those who worry that “gun-free zones” simply declare where the targets are have a good rhetorical point. However, Canada is much more of a gun-free zone, yet these mass shootings don’t happen there. Random shooters in the U.S. realistically ought to expect that some victims might be armed — yet they shoot anyway. There must be some other factor.
7. What allowances should be made for our hunting culture? One of Northam’s proposals increases the penalty for leaving a loaded, unsecured firearm around a child — and raises the definition of a child from 14 to 18. Some in Abingdon worried that would make it impossible for teens to hunt. That seems a reasonable concern. That may not be Northam’s intent, but the unintended impact shows how an increasingly urban state government has little understanding of life in rural Virginia where some kids are taught how to shoot a gun before they’re able to drive a car. That, of course, raises a larger question: Just how do we fashion a single set of laws for such a diverse society?
8. Why isn’t anyone talking about the Virginia Tech report? After the Tech shooting in 2007, then-Gov. Tim Kaine set up a well-regarded commission — chaired by the former superintendent of the state police — to study what happened and make recommendations. It made 72 of them. How many were acted on? Nobody knows, because the state’s never checked. Obviously, many of those were unique to a shooting on a college campus — but many weren’t. It seems incredible that Virginia could suffer what was then the worst shooting in our history — a status now pushed down to third by the shootings in Orlando and Las Vegas — and never go back and conduct any kind of review on how many of those recommendations were enacted and whether they worked. Why won’t either party propose an audit?