Well, that was quick.
The special session of the General Assembly that Gov. Ralph Northam called in the wake of the Virginia Beach massacre lasted only about 90 minutes. To hear Democrats tell it, the Republican-controlled legislature did nothing. To hear Republicans tell it, they did what Northam should have done —set in motion an independent investigation of the slaughter. Who’s right? To some extent, that depends upon your politics. Here are five other ways to look at what happened:
1. The results were completely predictable. Republicans were never going to pass any of the gun-related measures that Democrats wanted — and Democrats surely knew that going in. Guns are one of the litmus tests that separate the two parties; there’s not an easy compromise here as there is with, say, the budget where you can split the difference.
2. Both sides think they won. Republicans certainly won procedurally. Democrats would have been happy to win by passing some legislation, but they’re also secretly happy with this outcome — because they think it will give them a winning issue in November. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot then. Republicans hold narrow margins in both chambers (51-49 in the House and 21-19 in the Senate before some resignations). Democrats see 12 Republican-held seats in the House that voted Democratic in last year’s U.S. Senate race and seven such seats in the Senate. They are convinced that Republican refusal to pass gun legislation will be the winning issue that will put them over the top in some of those districts — and the legislature as a whole. Are they right?
3. We’ll find out in November how much voters really care about guns. Polls in Virginia have consistently found voters inclined to support the kind of gun legislation that the Republican legislature has always killed. In multiple polls over the years by both the Roanoke College Poll and the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, support for background checks for gun buyers — including those at gun shows — has run between 84% and 88%. Even most Republicans have supported such legislation, the polls have shown. One Roanoke College Poll — admittedly six years old now — found that 61% of those surveyed favored registering all firearms with the government and that 59% believed people should be required to get a license before owning a weapon. So if there’s really such broad support for what might be called “gun control,” why hasn’t that translated into legislative action? One popular answer is gerrymandering. It’s true that there is gerrymandering and in the House, this serves to maximize Republican strength at the expense of Democrats. (By contrast, the Senate map was drawn when Democrats were briefly in charge of that chamber after the last census). Here’s a better answer, though: Voters may tell pollsters they want gun control, but they don’t vote that way at the ballot box. Until they do, the laws won’t change. The sentiments expressed to pollsters may be heartfelt, but if they don’t drive voters to the polls, they really don’t mean anything. Turnout in state elections is always low compared to a presidential election — and it’s low in ways that benefit Republicans. One reason Democrats won so many seats in the House two years ago was that turnout was unexpectedly high — a Democratic reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency. Both parties are making a political bet: Republicans are betting that voters won’t make guns the deciding factor in November; Democrats are betting they will. History is on the Republicans’ side; Democrats are hoping momentum is on theirs.
4. Republicans did manage to highlight an opportunity that Northam missed. Republican leaders directed the Virginia State Crime Commission to undertake a “systematic review” of the Virginia Beach murders and come back with a detailed report “just as the Virginia Tech Review Panel did.” With that, they unfavorably contrasted Northam with Democrat Tim Kaine, who was governor when the Virginia Tech massacre happened — and who responded by appointing a well-respected panel to investigate. “Governor Northam should have followed the precedent set after the Virginia Tech murders,” said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County. “Having failed to follow a proven example that led to bipartisan consensus, that responsibility falls to us. By tasking the Crime Commission with this important assignment, we are establishing a thorough and reasoned process that will lead to broad consensus.”
It’s true that Northam could have set up such a commission — more on that shortly — but, for the reasons we discussed above, it’s hard to imagine any gun legislation that will garner a “broad consensus.” Kaine genuinely wanted to know how a student could go beserk and slaughter 32 students and professors. He wanted to prevent that from happening again. Northam, who seems a more cautious type, actually had a bolder aim — to enact more wide-ranging gun control. Kaine also was dealing with what was then relatively new phenomenon of mass shootings; Northam, sadly, is not. Some Republicans thought calling a special session was an attempt to distract attention from the governor’s “blackface” problems. The reality is that anything Northam does is an attempt to move on from the “blackface” issue. As long as Northam is governor, he ought to try to govern — and using a mass shooting to pursue gun laws that Democrats have long wanted seems, in context, as unremarkable as Republican opposition to the same. Still, in aiming high, Northam did skip over some details that might matter to somebody. For instance, did Virginia Beach have any warning that the shooter was unstable? Is there anything there that other employers could learn from? To find out, the Virginia Beach City Council has wisely commissioned its own independent investigation. Northam could have done that weeks ago, although such a gubernatorial fact-finding commission might have undercut the political rationale for a special session. There is, though, one thing neither party did during this week’s brief session:
5. Neither party called for an audit of that 2007 report on the Tech shooting. We still don’t know how many recommendations were enacted, for those that were, whether they worked. Will the Virginia State Crime Commission bother to look? Guess we’ll find out when the commission reports back in November — one week after we find out how much voters really care about guns as an election issue.