Each semester I teach a course in state and local government at Virginia Commonwealth University. One of the messages I try to convey is that the states, their legislatures and governors have a lot of leeway when it comes to national issues such as healthcare, education and public safety. They can step in when the federal government is slow to act or fails to act. This is particularly true when it comes to rules impacting the purchase of guns, background checks, magazine size and red flag laws. If the federal government won’t take action, then the states are the next best hope.
There have been a staggering number of mass shootings during the past few years. There is no precedent for this kind of scourge in our history. Here in Virginia, just a few months ago, there was a mass shooting at the Virginia Beach city administration building. Twelve people died. A couple of years ago, there was the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. Elsewhere around the country the list becomes staggeringly long. There is San Diego, Las Vegas, Orlando, El Paso, Dayton and Sandy Hook. Most, if not all, involved a mentally disturbed man with weapons he had no business owning. Several of these could have been stopped with better background checks or red flag laws.
Federal officials, the president, and mostly Republican members of Congress have become adept at sending out “thoughts and prayers,” but bi-partisan discussion and action on legislative remedies has been in short supply. The president and Congress can’t seem to find any momentum on the issue. President Donald Trump, shortly after the Dayton shooting, said he was in favor of enhanced background checks and perhaps red flag laws. But, that advocacy didn’t last long. He says he would still entertain the notion, but, facing lobbying from an important part of his base, the National Rifle Association, he’s gone quiet.
The House of Representatives, with a Democratic majority, is in favor of new gun regulations. However, in the Republican-controlled Senate, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ruthlessly guarding the calendar, it’s unlikely any such legislation will even be debated. That’s why any hope for a tightening of the rules around background checks, magazine types and red flag laws, are now mainly up to the states.
In the case of Virginia, with the GOP controlling the General Assembly with a one vote margin in each house, gun legislation has become the wedge issue in the November election. Unfortunately, for the GOP, their intransigence on the issue could cost them the election. A good example was the recent special session of the General Assembly. In the wake of the Virginia Beach shooting, which even claimed a former Stafford County public works employee, Governor Northam used his power to call the legislature back into session to discuss enhanced gun laws. The GOP shut down the session in less than an hour. In a number of swing districts that kind of behavior won’t help Republican candidates. Americans strongly support, to the tune of 84% of the voters, some kind of enhanced gun regulations.
Having said that, just what are we talking about? Curiously, what the backers of “common sense” gun laws are asking for isn’t all that restrictive. Their focus is primarily on the at-risk potential shooter. They are not trying to gut the Second Amendment. For instance, the proposals advocated by Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democratic representing parts of Stafford, Prince William and Fairfax, are decidedly tame. Most rational people would call them moderate. He wants limitations on the size of magazines and, after the shooting of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, co-sponsored a bill for a 15-round maximum. He supports implementing comprehensive “universal” background checks and he is also a chief co-sponsor of a red flag law for Virginia that would allow a judge to take away a person’s guns if the court deems the individual is a danger to themselves or others.
Of course, at the moment, the GOP majority is standing firm against any change to our existing gun laws. Their mantra, a diversionary tactic right out of the NRA playbook, is to say that we’re dealing with a mental health issue and not a gun issue. That’s disingenuous to the extreme. The problem remains that we allow people who have no business owning powerful weapons to have them. People are dying in seemingly unending mass shootings, schools have active shooter drills, and police are constantly on edge not knowing where the next crisis will occur. It’s a problem that’s reached crisis proportions and, yes, contrary to the opinions of the NRA, it is the government’s role to do something about this. If the federal government won’t act, then Virginia and other states must.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at email@example.com.