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Will recent mass shootings turn Virginia’s public safety debate?

an armed man at the 2020 gun rally in Richmond i
Thousands of gun ownership enthusiasts and armed militia members descended on the Virginia State Capitol in January 2020 to advocate for the unrestricted right to carry guns. (Photo: Mobilus In Mobili/Creative Commons)

Following the back-to-back mass shootings at the University of Virginia and a Chesapeake Walmart, Republicans and Democrats in the state are touting proposals to help prevent future tragedies — again.

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has proposed dedicating $230 million in funding for mental health treatment and facilities. And a leading rural Democrat now plans to renew an effort for a limited assault-style weapons ban.

In an interview with the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism, Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, said he intends to file legislation to ban new assault weapons and launch a gun buy-back program.

“The reality is nobody needs an assault weapon,” Deeds said. “If you try to protect yourself in an apartment or … even in a house with a weapon like that, you’re as likely to shoot somebody you care [about] as you are to shoot an intruder.”

Virginia’s political climate may be unfavorable to gun control measures, but pressure is on lawmakers to do something to quell the gun violence epidemic.

In mid-November, three members of the University of Virginia football team were shot and killed after a field trip to Washington, D.C. Two other students were wounded. Nine days later at a Chesapeake Walmart, an overnight manager stormed into the break room with a handgun and shot six co-workers dead before killing himself.

Overall gun violence rates in Virginia have also risen. Emergency room visits for gun-related injuries increased by 72% between 2018 and 2019. Black patients are most burdened by gun violence, with a rate of emergency room visits for gun-related injuries that is nearly three times that of white patients.

Democrats failed to pass legislation proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam in 2020 that would have banned the sale of many assault-style weapons. The effort was stymied by four of the party’s own senators, including Deeds, who were concerned the bill too broadly classified which weapons would be banned.

Dissenting Democrats provided the Republican Senate minority enough votes to table the bill, with Democrats calling for further study of the initiative. Deeds said his new bill would more narrowly define assault-style weapons and that guns manufactured before the effective date of the legislation, if passed, would be exempt from the ban on sale and transfer.

He also proposed a buy-back program for assault-style weapons grandfathered by the legislation, as well as an age restriction of 21 and older on possessing an assault-style weapon produced before or after the active date of the legislation.

Deeds said the legislation is “aimed at reducing firearms that are flowing onto the streets,” without violating the right to self-defense.

But many activist gun owners regarded previous attempts at a ban as a move to seize commonly used firearms from law-abiding citizens. It’s unclear how top Republicans regard Deed’s proposal. Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert and Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment could not be reached for comment.

In 2023, getting the ban through the Republican-dominated House is unlikely, said Bob Holsworth, a longtime analyst of Virginia politics. Democrats should have seized the advantage of controlling both chambers and the governor’s office, he said.

“That was a time when they could have gotten something done and they didn’t,” Holsworth said. “The environment for the passage of this bill was very different in 2020 than it is for 2023; if the Democrats had sat down and ironed out their disagreements, it would have passed and been signed by the governor.”

As lawmakers ready themselves for the General Assembly session, with the public memory of two mass shootings still fresh, the divide between Democrats and Republicans on how to handle gun violence seems impossibly wide.

Deeds and other Democrats want new limitations on obtaining and carrying firearms, particularly assault-style weapons, in addition to increasing mental health funding. Republicans counter that the problem isn’t guns, it’s people, and are instead focused on mental health as a cause for gun violence.

In response to the mass shootings, Youngkin proposed dedicating $230 million to fill gaps in Virginia’s overburdened mental and behavioral health care system. Funding would go toward increasing the number of mobile crisis units and crisis receiving and stabilization centers. The proposal would also expand tele-behavioral health services in public schools and colleges, among other initiatives. Virginia’s shrinking workforce in the mental health field led to the temporary closure of five of the state’s eight mental health hospitals for new admissions in 2021.

“The current behavioral health system is being overwhelmed and is failing to meet the needs of Virginians in crisis, with an outdated model of care that relies too heavily on hospitals,” the Youngkin administration said in a release.

Deeds, who became arguably the biggest champion in Virginia politics for mental health reform after he was stabbed by his son in 2013, who then died by suicide, agrees that Youngkin’s measures are desperately needed. But directly linking gun violence to mental health issues risks re-stigmatizing people with mental illness and ignores the role gun control could play in deterring shootings.

“We need to keep remedies for mental health issues at the front of our minds always,” Deeds said. “But that’s no substitute for the really hard work we need to do to try to reduce the flow of weapons into the hands of people who intend to do bad things.”

Others in Deed’s party take a different approach to addressing the cause of gun violence. Del. Marcia Price and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan have both advocated for establishing a Center for Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention at the Department of Criminal Justice Services. The center would research root causes for gun violence and assist in implementing evidence-based solutions.

“I’m all for preventing the sale of ghost [untraceable and privately assembled] guns [and] banning assault rifles, but we have to look at individual incidents,” Price said.

However, Price acknowledged that neither of the proposed bans would have necessarily prevented the UVA and Walmart shootings: “We have to look at it comprehensively… to get right-fit solutions.”

Gun rights advocates say gun control puts people at risk of becoming victims of crime because it prevents law-abiding citizens from carrying firearms for protection, said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

“Let people protect themselves, get rid of gun-free zones,” Van Cleave said. “There are not police around all of the time; you’re going to end up being your own first responder in an emergency.”

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, has filed draft legislation ahead of session that would prohibit localities from banning the possession of firearms on government property.

Though gun ownership has increased as more states pass ‘right-to-carry' laws, research has not found a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the prevalence of guns and the U.S. crime rate. But guns do make crimes more violent and potentially deadly, according to research from the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard.

Democrats most likely won’t have the same banner year as 2020, when Northam signed several gun control bills into law. And in the 2022 budget, both Democrats and Republicans received less funding than hoped for criminal justice initiatives. As Democrats and Republicans continue to draw ideological lines, it’s unclear how much either party will get done on gun violence this session.

“The reality is that people are so tribal about this issue that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground; people are either pro-Second Amendment or pro-gun control,” Deeds said. “We need to find a place where we can talk to each other and come up with solutions, and I don’t know if such a place exists anymore.”

Read the original story on WHRO's website.