For the first time in many years, I am pleased to recognize June as Gun Violence Awareness Month with a great sense of optimism. The recent passage of gun violence prevention legislation in some states is cause for hope after years of inaction by Congress and state legislatures — including Virginia’s. It is time for Virginia to follow the lead of these other states to enact comprehensive legislation like Gov. Rick Scott signed in Florida earlier this year.
Florida, like Virginia, is a gun-friendly state with limited restrictions on purchasing or possessing firearms. In fact, Scott previously maintained an “A-plus” rating from the National Rifle Association, based on his defense of the Second Amendment and consistent record of loosening Florida’s gun laws. Also like Virginia, Florida has experienced the horrific tragedy of mass shootings.
In 2007, 32 Virginia Tech students and professors were murdered during the deadliest school shooting by a single gunman in United States history. In 2016, 49 people were killed at the Pulse night club in Orlando, and in 2018, 17 students and staff were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Both states have mourned the loss of lives taken too soon. They have faced the unfathomable task of rebuilding communities that are forever scarred and desperately crying out for action that will prevent others from experiencing such pain.
On March 9, Florida responded to the terrible Parkland tragedy by approving a broad package of gun violence prevention legislation. Florida’s new law raises the minimum age to purchase firearms from 18 to 21, bans bump stocks, and requires a three-day “cooling off” period between the purchase and transfer of firearms. Most notably, this law includes a new and innovative Risk Protection Order, which may also be known as a Gun Violence Restraining Order, or more broadly as an extreme-risk law.
These types of laws, which are rightfully receiving considerable national attention, offer states a legal mechanism to mitigate risk and address dangerous behaviors before a tragedy occurs. Oftentimes following a shooting, particularly a mass shooting, reports surface of friends, family members, teachers, coworkers, or others who had recognized the potential for danger. Many may have even reported the behavior to law enforcement, only to learn that there was no existing mechanism to restrict access to firearms.
Extreme-risk laws enable law enforcement to petition a court for a risk protection order, or risk warrant, after investigating a report of dangerous behavior and finding that a person poses an immediate threat to self or others. A risk protection order temporarily prohibits an individual from accessing firearms and requires a person to immediately separate from any firearms in their possession until the courts determine they are no longer a risk.
Keeping guns out of the hands of individuals in crisis, or who are exhibiting dangerous behaviors, will undoubtedly improve public safety and prevent loss of life. This is especially critical to preventing suicide deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were more than 44,000 suicide deaths in the U.S. in 2015, nearly 50 percent of which occurred with firearms. Additionally, the Virginia Department of Health reports that our state experiences an average of 916 suicides per year. Of these cases, 56 percent involve firearms. Finally, both suicide and homicide deaths by firearms in Virginia have steadily increased since 2012.
As a result of such statistics, many states are recognizing the importance of adopting similar, life-saving legislation. There are even several bills before Congress awaiting a hearing. Prior to Florida’s action, only five other states had similar laws on their books. Most of these states — like California, Connecticut, Washington, and Oregon — have Democratic legislatures with Democratic governors. However, Florida and Indiana, which are both Republican-controlled states, have successfully adopted this commonsense measure.
Gov. Ralph Northam and his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, have championed gun violence prevention legislation in Virginia, repeatedly offering commonsense solutions to the Virginia General Assembly for adoption. Like the governor, I am encouraged by the bipartisan support extreme-risk laws are receiving across the nation. I am confident that our legislature will come together, as is the Virginia Way, and join these other states in creating a safer commonwealth and country.