More than 30 innocent people were killed and 50 more were injured this weekend in two mass shootings that shook the United States to its core.
On Saturday, a gunman opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 20 people before being arrested. The death toll has since risen to 22, as two more victims died in the hospital. The crime is being investigated as both a hate crime and an act of domestic terrorism.
Prior to the shooting, the gunman published a hate-filled, anti-Latinx manifesto reminiscent of the racist rhetoric used by President Trump, prompting outrage at the President for his role in inciting violence.
Before the country had time to process that shooting, a gunman in Dayton, Ohio opened fire at a bar, killing nine, including his own sister, before he was killed by police.
The massacres have prompted renewed calls from Democrats, activists, and ordinary Americans to reform the country’s gun laws, but such reforms continue to be blocked by Republicans and the NRA.
President Trump delivered a speech at the White House on Monday, where he echoed fellow Republicans by blaming mental illness and video games for the mass shooting epidemic. “Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger. Not the gun,” said Trump.
While Trump said he might support so-called “red-flag laws,” which would allow for the removal of firearms from people found to be mentally ill, he failed to endorse any substantive reforms to the country’s gun laws.
The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed two major gun bills in February, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) has refused to bring either to the floor of the Senate for a vote.
This Republican obstructionism on the federal level mirrors Virginia Republicans’ refusal to address gun violence in the Commonwealth.
Gun violence in Virginia
The issue of gun violence is so wide-spread that someone is killed with a gun every nine hours in Virginia, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. That’s 958 deaths per year.
Virginia knows the horror of mass shootings all too well, but mass shootings are not the only consequence of lax gun laws; nearly 67% of gun deaths in Virginia are suicides, with nearly 57% of all suicide deaths in the state involving firearms, according to Giffords.
Guns are also frequently involved domestic violence incidents. From 2004 to 2013, 37% of female murder victims in Virginia were killed by an intimate partner, and six out of every ten of those murders was carried out with a firearm, according to an analysis of FBI data.
Young people are among the most harmed by gun violence. Guns are the leading cause of death for Virginia children ages 1-17, and from 2013 to 2017, 926 people under the age of 25 were killed with a gun in the Commonwealth.
In Richmond alone, 26 students were shot and two were killed during the most recent academic year.
Despite studies showing that stronger gun laws would likely reduce gun deaths among young people, Virginia’s Republican-controlled General Assembly has not acted on the issue.
Republicans have also blocked almost every gun safety bill over the past two decades and notably refused to consider any gun law reforms after the Virginia Beach mass shooting in May, adjourning a July special session on gun laws in just 90 minutes.
As a result, Virginia still has among the loosest gun laws in the United States, earning a “D” grade from Giffords.
Virginia’s Gun Laws
In the decade following the Virginia Tech shooting, Virginia’s legislature, which has largely been controlled by Republicans, has actually passed more measures to preserve or expand gun rights than to reign them in.
Since Virginia Tech, the state has made it easier to carry a concealed gun into a bar, made it legal to keep guns in car glove boxes, and continued to ignore calls for expanded background checks.
Former Republican Governor Bob McDonnell even repealed the state’s one-gun-a-month law that kept the Virginia Tech gunman from purchasing multiple guns at once.
This year, Democrats proposed several bills that would have reformed the state’s gun laws, only for Republicans to block each one of them:
- Universal Background Checks (HB 2479, SB 1454, SB 1164, SB 1162): These bills would require people to pass an instant background check before purchasing a firearm.
- Extreme Risk Protection Order laws (SB 1458, HB 1763): These bills, commonly called red flag laws, allow close family members and law enforcement officers to petition a court to temporarily limit a person’s access to firearms if they have exhibited dangerous behavior.
- Domestic Violence (SB 1467): This legislation prevents persons with permanent protective orders (i.e., domestic abusers) from purchasing firearms and mandates that prohibited abusers relinquish their guns, too.
- Assault Weapons and Extended Magazines Bans (HB 2492, SB 1748): These bills would change the definition of an assault weapon from a gun that holds more than 20 rounds of ammunition to one that holds more than ten. Democrats have pushed this legislation since at least 2011.
- Local Authority to Prohibit Firearms at Permitted Events (SB 1473, SB 1482, SB 1303): This legislation would allow local authorities to prohibit firearms at events that require a permit. If enacted, such laws “could prevent everyday disagreements from escalating into deadly assaults,” according to Giffords.
- Ban on Bump Stocks (SB 1008, SB 1163): These bills criminalize the manufacture, sale, and possession of bump stocks. A bump stock was used in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that left 58 people dead. Though a federal ban went into effect on March 26, Virginia lawmakers passed on opportunities to restrict bump stocks sooner.
- One Handgun a Month (SB 1034, SB 1446, HB2604): Gun safety advocates say that limiting the sale of handguns to one per month helps prevent gun trafficking by preventing bulk purchases of firearms. That was the law in Virginia until Republicans repealed the statute in 2012.
- Reporting Lost or Stolen Firearms (SB 1324, HB 1644): These bills would mandate that gun owners report lost or stolen firearms to authorities within 24 hours.
- Penalty for allowing minors access to firearms (SB 1096, HB 2285): Legislation providing that any person who leaves a loaded, unsecured gun to a minor under the age of 18 is guilty of a Class 6 felony, or of a Class 3 Felony if left to a minor under 14-years-old.
Every bill was blocked by Republicans, mirroring their obstruction in 2018, when the General Assembly rejected all but two of more than 80 gun-related bills.
What do everyday Virginians think?
According to a June 2017 poll from Quinnipiac, 91% of Virginians support requiring background checks for all gun buyers (private sales are still not subject to background checks). A more recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 60% of Virginians support stricter gun laws overall.
Virginia Democrats responded to this weekend’s mass shootings with renewed calls to address gun violence.
While Virginia Republicans condemned the gunmen who perpetrated this weekend’s shootings, they remained silent on reforming the state’s gun laws, with the exception of state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) who called for loosening the state’s gun laws by eliminating gun-free zones.
Any change — in either direction — will have to wait until after this November’s elections, when all 140 seats of the General Assembly are up for grabs. After flipping 15 seats in the House of Delegates during the 2017 elections, Democrats have their best chance in years to win control of both chambers. If that happens, they may finally be able to pass the gun safety bills that a majority of Virginians support.
Should Republicans hang onto control, it would likely mean maintaining the status quo.