Grief. Anger. A sense of helplessness. A desire to do something. After years of horrific mass shootings in the United States, including here in Virginia, the emotions that come after reading that more lives have been tragically cut short feel all too common.
And fear. We — and our children — are gripped by that awful fear reminiscent of how we all felt in 2002 in the D.C. sniper tragedy. We were afraid to take our kids to school. To go to the mall. To pump our gas.
Another familiar feeling is frustration with Virginia Republicans in the General Assembly, who refuse to take any action on gun safety, willing only to offer “thoughts and prayers.”
After the Parkland shooting in February 2018, in which 17 people were senselessly killed by someone who had repeatedly shown clear signs that he intended to commit acts of violence, the Broward County Sheriff revealed that police had uncovered “approximately 20 calls for service over the last few years regarding the killer.” But police could not do anything to remove his legally bought cache of weapons, even temporarily.
In response to Parkland, President Trump, Vice President Pence, then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and several other Republicans urged passage of a red-flag law. Warning signs do not and will never precede every incidence of gun violence, but law enforcement should be able to act when there are clear indicators of risk of future violence. Shooting after shooting, we hear that someone saw the signs and reported them, and police simply could not intervene. Florida has since passed a red-flag law, joining 16 other states and the District on this evidence-based, significant step on gun safety.
After the recent mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, Trump renewed his call for red-flag laws across the country, as did Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and a number of Republican representatives. It’s worth noting that Attorney General William P. Barr, in his confirmation hearing, emphasized that passage of this type of legislation is “the single most important thing I think we can do in the gun control area to stop these massacres from happening in the first place.”
For the past three years, I have introduced red-flag bills in the Virginia House of Delegates that would create an Extreme Risk Protection Order, a tool with which law enforcement can stop gun violence before a single shot is fired. The bill would allow a commonwealth’s attorney or law enforcement officer to petition a judge to issue a risk order and warrant to remove a person’s firearms temporarily if they learn, for instance, from concerned family or friends that someone “poses a substantial risk of personal injury to himself or others in the near future.” Within 14 days, the court would have to convene a full hearing, ensuring there is ample due process.
Moreover, this bill is not just a tool to prevent mass shootings. It is a suicide-prevention method that we know works, as shown by a 2018 study by Aaron J. Kivisto and Peter Lee Phalen. Their report found that in Indiana and Connecticut, both of which implemented red-flag laws years ago, dozens of suicides have been prevented because friends and family were able to petition law enforcement to remove weapons from the homes of individuals who had been shown to be at immediate risk of suicide. Preliminary data for 2018 shows that, of the 1,035 deaths because of guns in Virginia last year, 674 were suicides. How many of those lives could have been saved through intervention?
And yet, Republicans in the General Assembly have failed Virginians. My bill never even received a hearing in 2018. In 2019, it was killed along party lines in subcommittee. In the July Special Session on gun safety after the mass shooting in Virginia Beach, it was punted by Republicans to the Crime Commission for “study.”
We do not need a study. We have 17 other states as evidence that this type of law works. We need action.
I am scheduled to present this bill to the Crime Commission on Aug. 20. They have given me all of three minutes. I sincerely hope commission chair state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) and vice chair Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle), along with commission member Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), will join Trump and other members of their party across the country and urge the Crime Commission to support this bill. This is their third chance this year to do something to stop preventable gun violence in the commonwealth. Virginia — and the nation — will be watching.