The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia crime commission ponders gun violence and concludes that it’s complicated

Del. Hala Ayala (D-Prince William) addresses a crowd of gun control demonstrators alongside former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, among other Virginia candidates, in front of the National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax in September. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — The Virginia State Crime Commission studied 78 bills proposed by lawmakers to reduce gun violence and considered 4,145 comments from the public and on Tuesday issued the following conclusion:

“Staff determined that inconclusive evidence exists to develop recommendations.”

The commission, which Republican lawmakers had charged with studying gun restrictions in the wake of the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach, said the matter was too complicated.

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The “overall findings from the research were often insufficient, mixed, contradictory, or based on limited methodology,” commission staff wrote in a three-page report. “Any changes to these laws are policy decisions which can only be made by the General Assembly.”

Which is where things started back in July, when Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called a special legislative session to consider gun-control measures. Republicans who controlled the legislature adjourned the session after only 90 minutes without debating a single bill.

Instead, GOP leaders referred all measures to the crime commission, a bipartisan panel chaired by Republican state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (Rockingham). They accused Democrats of rushing to act while the Virginia Beach tragedy was still raw and said they wanted a more deliberative process.

The lack of action became a major issue in last week’s legislative election, in which Democrats took control of both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in 26 years. Everytown for Gun Safety, the national advocacy group founded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, poured more than $2.5 million into Virginia campaigns to promote candidates who would enact gun-control laws.

A Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted shortly before the election showed gun policy to be the top concern of a majority of voters statewide.

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“Mark Obenshain’s dog and pony show resulted in exactly what we expected: nothing,” Jake Rubenstein, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said Tuesday. “This 3 page letter is a bad excuse note for refusing to act on gun violence. Luckily excuse time is over and Democrats will act in January.”

Obenshain chairs the commission and announced last week that it would not meet again to take up whatever recommendations the staff would produce, leaving that to next year’s General Assembly session.

“Commission staff has been working diligently on its report,” Obenshain said in a statement Friday. “But as Gov. Northam has made clear he is preparing a legislative package related to these issues for when the General Assembly convenes two months from today, it would not be pragmatic for the Commission to continue its deliberations on these issues at this point.”

Northam has said he will work with the new Democratic majorities to pass a package of bills that have been killed year after year by the Republican leadership. Those include closing the gun show loophole for background checks, banning assault-style weapons and creating a “red flag” law that allows authorities to seize guns from someone deemed a threat.

The crime commission staff said its lack of recommendations did not mean that no changes to state law are needed. “A large amount of information was collected and numerous policy considerations were identified in relation to gun violence,” the report said. “As such, staff is available to provide technical assistance to members of the General Assembly.”

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