Virginia policymakers on Monday heard more than six hours of expert testimony on gun violence, but it remains to be seen which data points could translate to legislative action in the months ahead.
The Virginia State Crime Commission convened in Richmond on Monday morning for the first of two days devoted to gun issues, a process that grew out of the aftermath of the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach and Gov. Ralph Northam’s call for a special session on guns.
Speaking to reporters Monday evening, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, the Crime Commission chairman, offered little to suggest that the panel’s recommendations will include big-ticket items on the Democratic wish list like universal background checks or “red flag” laws.
“What we are trying to do is to take meaningful steps” that will “keep Virginians safer from the threat of mass violence,” Obenshain said. “Not adopt window dressing that is going to make politicians feel better.”
Northam signaled his displeasure with the process just as the hearings began, releasing a letter to the Crime Commission challenging Republicans’ decision to delay action on gun issues until after November’s General Assembly elections.
“The assertion that more study is needed — 12 years and over 70 mass shootings after Virginia Tech — is inaccurate and inexcusable,” Northam said.
Democrats have derided the efforts of the Republican-led Crime Commission as an election year show, noting that GOP majorities have previously blocked many of the gun control proposals now under consideration. Republican leaders have tried to portray their process as a more deliberate approach, saying Northam’s proposals would have done little to prevent the shooting in Virginia Beach.
This week’s meetings are the first step in the Crime Commission’s study of more than 75 bills introduced for the July 9 special session, which Republicans voted to adjourn after about 90 minutes. Since then, the nation was stunned by back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, but Republicans are sticking to their planned timeline.
At the daylong hearing Monday, state and federal officials presented a wide variety of statistics on gun purchases, gun crimes and gun deaths, but largely steered clear of endorsing specific legislation. Rosie Hobron, a forensic epidemiologist with the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, presented data showing that guns are involved in 72% of homicides in Virginia and 56% of suicides. The rate of gun-related deaths in Virginia, she said, closely tracks national statistics.
Researchers invited to present their findings were more direct in suggesting policy solutions.
Among them was Claire Boine, a visiting fellow at Boston University’s School of Public Health, who said Virginia could significantly reduce its homicide rate, potentially preventing 124 deaths per year, by adopting universal background checks, denying gun access to those convicted of violent misdemeanors and giving authorities more discretion to deny concealed weapon permits.
“The biggest takeaway of this study is that, regardless of which form it takes, what is important is to prevent people with a history of interpersonal violence from accessing weapons,” Boine said. “And to enforce that.”
Laws restricting what types of firearms are available to the general public, such as assault weapons bans or magazine size limits, may be effective at limiting the damage done in mass shootings, Boine said. But because those types of attacks are rare compared with more routine gun suicides and homicides, Boine said her research shows laws aimed at weapon types are less effective at reducing overall gun violence.
Obenshain said he appreciated Boine’s perspective, but he didn’t agree with her recommendations.
He was more enthusiastic about a presentation from David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. In the final presentation of the day, Kennedy laid out his strategies for preventing urban gun violence, which involve partnerships between law enforcement and community leaders to identify groups most at risk of shooting others or being shot.
Kennedy said it’s not mass shootings driving most gun violence.
“It is the awful grinding, everyday gun violence that we deal with every day in our cities,” he said.
His ideas mirror a group violence intervention proposal introduced by House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, a gun-rights supporter.
Obenshain said he felt Kennedy offered a particularly “innovative” idea.
“I know that there are communities that really do live in fear. And that’s an important part of the work that we are looking at,” Obenshain said. “I think part of the charge is for this commission to develop proposals and recommendations on which we really can link arms in a broad, bipartisan way.”
Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, a member of the Crime Commission, said it’s always good to do a “deep dive” on policy, but the General Assembly had the same opportunity back in July.
“Since then, how many people have had to die?” Krizek said. “We could’ve already enacted some of these laws.”
Though the first day focused largely on background information and big-picture data, Tuesday is likely to be more political.
Starting at noon, the Crime Commission will accept comments from members of the public and advocacy groups, then hear lawmakers give presentations on their bills.