Some black Virginians say addressing gun violence requires more than new gun laws
By Keya Vakil
June 27, 2019

Gov. Ralph Northam and fellow Virginia Democrats have criss-crossed the state, holding roundtable discussions on gun violence, and while they’ve faced expected pushback from gun rights advocates, a new report in the Washington Post shines a spotlight on a more surprising source of pushback: Virginians of color.

This was best exemplified during a roundtable in the Hampton Roads area when local residents and officials made clear to Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, that passing gun legislation wasn’t enough. They said the state also needs to address decades of neglect in communities of color.

LaTonya Wallace, who runs a community organization for children in Newport News, said the real issue is “low access to jobs, little to no access to quality health care,” and “inequitable education systems.”

Wallace said that the lasting impacts of redlining, gentrification, population displacement and the lack of investment in communities of color exacerbate gun violence in communities like hers, and pointed out that there was no legislation being proposed to address that trauma.

It’s unlikely the Republican-controlled General Assembly will take up such legislation when it convenes for its special session on July 9, but Wallace and other community activists called for Gov. Northam to do more to address the root causes of gun violence.

Northam, who called the special session after the deadly mass shooting in Virginia Beach on May 31, is proposing legislation to ban assault weapons, silencers and extended ammunition magazines. Among the other changes he wants to see are a law that allows law enforcement to remove firearms belonging to people who are deemed a risk to themselves or others and another measure that limits handgun purchases to one a month.

While Virginia Democrats fully support the efforts to reform Virginia’s gun laws and already tried to pass such reforms earlier this year, Republicans have shown no indication they will budge from their hard-line stance. 

Instead of strengthening the state’s lax gun laws, which earned a “D” rating from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Republicans plan to introduce a bill to increase legal penalties for firearms violations, which Northam opposes. 

While gun safety advocates continue to push for reform, the National Rifle Association is also mobilizing against any such reforms. The NRA announced town hall meetings next week featuring several Republicans, including state Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach), whose district includes the site of the mass shooting and also appears to have a conflict of interest when it comes to gun legislation.

Many gun rights advocates, particularly those in southwestern Virginia, also voiced their displeasure with any potential reforms to Virginia’s gun laws during the forums, but they remain in the minority.

A June 2017 poll from Quinnipiac found that 91% of Virginians support requiring background checks for all gun buyers, while a June 2018 Quinnipiac poll showed that 60% of Virginians support stricter gun laws overall.

As for addressing the root causes of gun violence, Moran acknowledged that “more needs to be done in the area of poverty, housing, opportunity, jobs, education,” and said that there would be time for that during the General Assembly’s regular session in January.

Whether that’s good enough for Virginians of color and advocates remains to be seen. 

James Braxton III, who works for a community group called Rise for Youth, told the Post that change will come after the state makes “strategic investments in dealing with the root causes of violence.”

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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