RICHMOND — The pair of mass shootings that stunned the nation over the weekend didn’t cause any immediate shifts in the gun policy debate in Virginia, where lawmakers have worked themselves into an election-year stalemate after a similar attack in Virginia Beach.
The back-to-back shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, which left 31 dead, came less than a month after Republican General Assembly leaders abruptly adjourned a special session on guns, rejecting Gov. Ralph Northam’s calls for stricter gun control laws.
At the one-day session on July 9, Republicans punted the proposals to the Virginia State Crime Commission for further review. On Monday, Republicans signaled no change in course.
“We look forward to the commission meeting later this month to consider those pieces of legislation and find ways to keep our community safe,” said Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.
Meanwhile, Democrats decried the lack of action by Republicans during the special session on proposals that they deemed critical to curbing gun violence. Northam described his proposals in a statement Monday as “so common sense” that even President Donald Trump seemed to endorse some of them, considering the two recent shootings.
One such proposal is the “red flag” law, which would allow a court to issue a temporary order restricting a person’s access to firearms if deemed an extreme risk to themselves or others. (The shooter in Dayton, for example, had a record of violent intent, according to law enforcement.)
Trump endorsed that type of legislation during a speech Monday, while a powerful Republican senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, proposed a federal grant program to encourage states to adopt such laws. More than a dozen states have enacted such laws, including Florida.
In Virginia, Republicans have repeatedly rejected such proposals.
“The bill that we introduced strikes a very thoughtful balance between an individual’s Second Amendment rights, and personal and public safety,” said Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, who has introduced “red flag” proposals during the last few legislative sessions, including the special session in July.
“I can claim a growing bipartisan trend across the country.”
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky called Sullivan’s proposal “commonsense, effective, and bipartisan,” noting support by Republicans outside of Virginia. “It has been passed by Republican legislatures, signed into law by Republican governors, and was recently endorsed by President Trump,” she said.
Virginia law currently restricts gun access to people who have been involuntarily admitted for mental health treatment, or who voluntarily agreed to such treatment before a court.
Slaybaugh, the spokesman for Cox, pointed to such policies Monday, arguing that they “go far beyond the so-called ‘red flag’ laws being proposed.”
“When someone is placed in emergency custody pursuant to one of those orders, they lose their right to possess a firearm,” Slaybaugh said.
Sullivan rejected the argument, saying that his “red flag” proposal creates an avenue for law enforcement to obtain a warrant to seize any firearms from people at risk, a process he said “doesn’t exist now.”
He added that his proposal would apply to people who may be in “crisis” but may not have a mental illness diagnosis. “There could be lots of reasons why someone shouldn’t have a gun that don’t have to do with a mental illness diagnosis.”
The legislature is not scheduled to reconvene the gun policy session until after the November elections, which will decide partisan control of both chambers for 2020.
The crime commission convenes later this month to study proposals related to gun violence from the special session. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, chairman of the commission, said officials “do a disservice” by suggesting there is a quick fix to mass shootings.
“I wish that it was as simple as some would suggest to address this, but quite frankly we have some deep societal issues that need to be addressed,” Obenshain said. “I think it really requires a thoughtful approach, not just some kind of a politicization of tragic events.”