RICHMOND — In the wake of the Virginia Beach shooting, dozens of community leaders, policemen and women, gun-violence victims and concerned citizens gathered inside a church tabernacle to talk to lawmakers about Virginia’s firearm laws. Despite the painful topic, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) conducted Monday’s round table discussion with skill, granting each participant their moment to share, while politely dousing sparks of crossfire before they could ignite — as if he had done this many times before.
He has. And his decades of experience in having these difficult conversations highlights how little has changed.
As a Richmond city council member from 1994 to 1998, Kaine was part of innumerable conversations on gun policy held at wakes, crime scenes, court meetings, and church basements, he recalled during his opening remarks. Back then, Kaine said, the city of Richmond had the second-highest homicide rate in the country.
“While there was pain, there was also a realization that there were steps we could take that would make the city safer,” Kaine said.
One of those steps was Project Exile, a 1997 program Kaine backed that shifted the prosecution of illegal technical gun possession to federal courts. It worked. During Kaine’s tenure as mayor from 1998 to 2001, Richmond’s homicide rate fell by 55 percent.
Those types of statistics didn’t grab headlines, though. The suicides, murders, accidental shootings, and horror stories of what happens after a child finds a loaded gun happening in Virginia did not make a national figure out of Kaine.
Instead, it took what was then the worst shooting in the history of the United States for Kaine’s gun policy platform to gain traction. That was in 2007 when a shooter at Virginia Tech University killed 33 people. Kaine called it “the worst day of my life.”
“The pain of the Virginia Tech experience was like the experience in Richmond,” Kaine said, “it was painful, but there were also things we could do to make ourselves safer.”
The Virginia Tech shooter, who Kaine described as “a deranged young person,” should not have been able to buy the weapons he used to carry out his attack. There was a loophole in the law, Kaine said, “a weakness in the background check system.”
In the aftermath of the collegiate massacre, “we went to the [state] legislature and asked them to do a comprehensive fix … but they would not do it.” Republicans controlled both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly then, as they do now.
In 2013, as a U.S. Senator, Kaine gave it another shot — this time at the federal level. A shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut had left 27 people, mostly children, dead. Senate Democrats had their best chance yet to pass a universal background check bill.
“The gallery of the Senate was filled with families of the kids who were murdered at Sandy Hook, and many of them had Virginia Tech families sitting next to them, holding their hands,” Kaine said.
On a near party-line vote, the 2013 background check bill failed to secure the 60 votes needed to advance.
“You don’t want to fall short when people who have been hurt so badly are sitting there, watching you, praying that the Senate will do the right thing,” Kaine said.
Congress may not reverse its course, but there is potential at the state level.
Gun safety reforms like making it easier to flag individuals who are potentially dangerous and should not get a gun, improved background checks and bans on high capacity magazines are among the bills that might be considered during a special session of the Virginia General Assembly on July 9.
Though he will not get a vote, Kaine is actively organizing around the special session at the grassroots level.
But knowing all too well that the shooting at a public municipal building in Virginia Beach might not bear the fruits of gun safety legislation advocates have longed, Kaine said the round table and two others he’d planned in Charlottesville and Fredericksburg this week are designed for constituents to bring their suggestions to the table.
“In addition to thoughts and prayers and questions about the perpetrator … we ought to be looking in the mirror and asking ourselves what can we do as legislators, what can we do as community leaders? Now is the time for us to convert an opportunity into meaningful action,” Kaine said.