So, Gov. Ralph Northam has called a special session of the General Assembly to take up gun-related legislation in the wake of Friday’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach. Let’s parse the politics of this:
- Northam gets credit for taking action. Now, nothing may come of this. Depending on where you stand on guns, maybe you think nothing should come of this. That’s a separate question, though. In sheer political terms, this makes Northam look strong and decisive — two things he hasn’t been accused of lately in the wake of the “blackface” scandal.
- Northam’s decision to call a special session may be unique. Mass shootings have become frighteningly 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. This is the America we’re living in now — and make no mistake, this is a uniquely American disease. Something has changed, but our policies haven’t. Northam, though, may be the only governor to respond by calling his state’s legislature into special session to do something — which will focus even more national attention on Virginia. The only other special session we can find is when South Carolina convened for the sole purpose of symbolically taking down the Confederate battle flag.
- Is this political? Of course, it’s political. Politics isn’t always a dirty word. Northam and fellow Democrats really would like the General Assembly to pass new gun laws. That’s a pretty straightforward policy position — and one that routinely separates Democrats from Republicans. There’s nothing wrong with that; the legislature is there to deal with policy. The politics come into play this way: This is an election year in Virginia. All 140 seats in the General Assembly will be on the ballot in November. Right now, Republicans hold the narrowest of majorities — 51-49 in the House, 21-19 in the Senate. To achieve their policy aims, Democrats would like to see either one of two political scenarios: Either a few Republican legislators in swing districts feel political pressure from constituents and vote in favor of new gun laws, or the failure to pass new gun laws results in a voter uprising that installs a Democratic legislature. Republicans, of course, would like to avoid either of those two scenarios. So is Northam’s decision to call a special session political? Of course, but that’s how policy decisions get made. The Democratic enthusiasm for a special session is just as political as is the Republican reluctance. It’s only good or bad depending on what your policy aims are.
- Northam has a good speechwriter. The recent report commissioned by Eastern Virginia Medical School about the racist photo on Northam’s yearbook page did not paint a flattering picture of the governor and his staff under pressure. Indeed, the report showed Northam’s staff exacerbated his troubles by drafting a statement in which he apologized for something he later claimed he never did. In issuing the call for the special session, the staff work was a lot better. Northam has two quotable lines that should make national news — over and over:
“I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers.” And: “I am calling on the elected officials of this Commonwealth to become second responders. Your duty is clear: rush to the scene and put a stop to this violence.”
Even Republicans who hold diametrically opposed views on guns ought to admire the wordsmithing there. They also might want to come up with a better rhetorical response than the now-routine “thoughts and prayers.” That’s become a cliché, and it’s not helpin their cause. Here’s another unhelpful cliché: That it’s too soon to talk about solutions.
- Republicans might not want to appear so reluctant. On Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, called it “offensive, disrespectful, and tasteless” to talk about politics so soon after the shooting. Most of us understand the need for a decent interval for grieving. But when is the proper time to talk about a political response, whatever response that might be? We now have a mass shooting every few months. If it’s always too soon to talk about a response, we never will. That might suit some gun rights advocates just fine, but that’s not a tenable political response. Even Tuesday, House Speaker Kirk Cox called Northam’s decision to call a special session “hasty.” It’s only hasty because Northam wants to talk about a subject Republicans don’t: Gun laws. Even if they don’t think any laws should be changed, Republicans need a better rhetorical response to mass shootings — because right now they often look as if they simply don’t want to do anything. Cox says that’s not so, that Republicans will put forth their own initiatives to deal with what even he calls “gun violence.” Still, Democrats right now are winning the rhetorical contest.
- Some of the proposals on both sides won’t make any difference whatsoever. Democrats would like to ban weapons in municipal buildings. Republicans say they want to stiffen penalties on people who use guns to commit crimes. Both may be good ideas, but neither would have prevented last week’s massacre: A shooter intent on murder isn’t going to be deterred by a sign that says “no guns allowed” and won’t be around to suffer any “stiffer penalty” after being shot to death by police or himself. So just how do we deal with these regular outbursts of violence?
- So what should happen at this special session? Here’s something we hope both parties could get behind. After the Tech shooting, then-Gov. Tim Kaine put together a commission to study what happened. That commission made 72 proposals to prevent another such slaughter. How many have been acted on? Nobody knows, because there’s never been any kind of formal audit to find out. Wouldn’t that be helpful to know? Northam could call for such an audit now. Or the General Assembly could mandate one. That alone won’t prevent these now-routine horrors, but how can we even begin to talk about what would stop them if we don’t even know what’s been done, or not done? That would seem a serious response by either party.