Back in July, Virginia lawmakers came to Richmond for a special session called by Gov. Ralph Northam on gun safety proposals.
In a heated election year, the state Capitol grounds were loaded with theatrics, from gun control advocates chanting into bullhorns, to gun rights enthusiasts with rifles across their chests. Inside, the scene was more subdued, but not without drama.
After 90 minutes, the Republican majority pulled the plug on floor debate and deferred to the Virginia State Crime Commission for a more detailed report. They set the next meeting of the assembly for Nov. 18 — two weeks after Election Day.
On Monday and Tuesday, the commission met for nearly 16 hours to begin its work. The body’s purpose is to “study, report, and make recommendations on all areas of public safety and protection.” As a unit, it looks “to ascertain the causes of crime and recommend ways to reduce and prevent it,” and we hope the proceedings will bring clarity.
“The speed which the governor called the session, the partisan demands for floor votes, the roadshow all demonstrate to me how the whole thing is just an election-year stunt,” House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said at a news conference after the July adjournment. “We all share the goal of reducing gun violence in Virginia.”
Cox had a point. Northam announced the special session four days after a public utilities employee shot 12 people at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. A police investigation had not taken place. A thorough assessment, which we expect the commission to complete, was missing.
But since July 9, major shootings at a garlic festival in Gilroy, California, (four dead), a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, (22 dead) and a street outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio, (10 dead) have shaken the hearts and minds of the public. The speed with which the General Assembly is addressing gun issues is inexcusable.
“By not allowing for a single vote on legislation or a single word of debate on commonsense gun control bills, they dishonored the victims of gun violence across Virginia,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in July.
Stoney had a point. Virginia legislators could have set a national example by standing up for their values and voting — yes, voting — on the solutions they stand behind. That’s their job. But they didn’t.
In July, more than 260 Virginians were brave enough to share their thoughts and ideas with Richmond Times-Dispatch regarding the state’s gun issues. Solutions presented by readers included universal background checks, bans on assault-style weapons, suppressors and bump stocks and a reinstatement of the one-handgun-a-month law, as well as no action at all.
That’s a debate we hoped the General Assembly would be willing to have. But the fear of campaign ads and losing an election seem to have outweighed the fear of constituents — those who demand gun safety measures and those who worry their right to bear arms is being taken away.
Part of being an effective, elected official is the willingness to take tough votes when public policy matters arise, not just convenient times within a term of service. The General Assembly is behind schedule on gun issues.
In a representative democracy, laws are results. The votes of the people build the composition of the Legislature. The Legislature then votes to create policies that govern the people and adapts to trying times.
Some laws can be perceived as rules, say “No guns allowed in state municipal buildings.” Other laws are viewed as rights, such as “No permit is necessary for open carry of a firearm.”
Every day without action is not only contemptuous of the Americans who died from gun violence this year. It’s also a refusal by elected officials to go on the record and let voters know where they stand.
For the Virginia General Assembly — a diverse body of 72 Republicans and 68 Democrats — we wish the guns debate would be more about the art of the vote. Legislative leaders who have blocked votes can’t hide behind their inaction. Virginians deserve to know where candidates stand on these concerns before heading to the polls in November.