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Virginia’s Crime Commission kicks off hearings on mass shootings

Christine Craig prays with Brittany Perry, right, at a memorial near the Virginia Beach municipal center, the site of a mass shooting in May.
Christine Craig prays with Brittany Perry, right, at a memorial near the Virginia Beach municipal center, the site of a mass shooting in May. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Virginia’s Crime Commission will devote two days this week to mass shootings and other gun violence, issues vexing a state where 32 died in a university massacre a dozen years ago, where another 12 were cut down at a municipal complex in May and where an average of three more were lost to less sensational shootings every day in between.

Over day-long hearings Monday and Tuesday, the commission will hear from law enforcement officials, academics and activists. State delegates and senators will be there, too, presenting about 60 bills proposed for a special legislative session on guns that Republicans ended abruptly in July.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called the special session following a May 31 shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal complex. GOP House and Senate leaders adjourned after 90 minutes without taking up a single bill, promising to reconvene Nov. 18 — after pivotal state elections in which all 140 legislative seats are on the ballot.

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GOP leaders said the crime commission, which is bipartisan but under Republican control, would use the time in between to study the legislation and make recommendations to the General Assembly. The hearings Monday and Tuesday will launch those studies — something Northam and some fellow Democrats say is unnecessary but perhaps not unhelpful to their cause.

“The time for studies and excuses is over — Virginians deserve action, and that is exactly what Governor Northam asked for when he called the legislature back in July. While the governor rejects the idea that his proposed gun safety measures need further study, he is confident that the Crime Commission hearing will once again show these common-sense measures to be just that — common-sense, bipartisan, and effective,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in an email. “These measures have already saved lives, where implemented.”

Brian Moran, Northam’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, said the commission hearing will put a spotlight on the issue, which only took on more urgency after mass shootings this month in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.

“It does serve to delay, but we’ll use it as an opportunity to demonstrate that these are common-sense, constitutional and effective pieces of legislation,” Moran said.

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Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham), chairman of the commission, said he expects the panel to overcome “philosophical divides” to find solutions.

“There are those that are skeptical, but I’m here to tell you that it is my hope and expectation that we’re going to adopt meaningful proposals at the end of this process that are going to keep communities safe across Virginia,” he said.

But Lori Haas, senior director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, was bluntly pessimistic about the proceedings.

“It’s an absolute farce on the part of Republicans,” said Haas, whose daughter was wounded in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. “I personally have been advocating and presenting them with reports, and data, and research for 12 years. They were just looking for a way to kick the can down the road when all eyes were on them during the special session.”

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Michael Kelly, spokesman for Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), shared that view.

“We see this meeting as exactly what it is: a way for Republicans to pretend to be busy and responsive to Virginians’ demands for action on gun violence while they avoid doing the effective things that should be easy to support, like universal background checks, a red flag law, disarming domestic abusers and white supremacists, and restricting assault weapons, high capacity magazines, silencers, and bump stocks,” Kelly said in an email.

A spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Philip Van Cleave, head of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, said “it’s hard to anticipate” what will come out of the hearings but hopes his side can get its point across.

“There are things that can be done to make people safe, things like getting rid of gun-free zones,” he said.

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Virginia Republicans have staunchly resisted gun-control measures in recent years, saying they favor increasing criminal penalties for gun violations instead and addressing mental-health issues.

House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) has proposed creating two state grant programs aimed at increasing law enforcement in violent urban neighborhoods and helping young people extract themselves from street gangs, with education and job training to start better lives.

Pressure on Republicans has mounted since President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signaled a willingness to act after back-to-back shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, which left 31 people dead and dozens more wounded.

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In the aftermath, Trump tweeted, “Common sense things can be done that are good for everyone!” He later said he was confident he could rally Republicans around legislation to strengthen background checks. McConnell said the U.S. Senate could take up the measure when it returns from its August recess. He also mentioned considering “red flag” laws, which the Trump administration has endorsed and which have been enacted in 17 states.

Last week, Del. Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax) got on board with a so-called red flag bill proposed by Del. Jason S. Miyares (R-Virginia Beach), which would allow police to take a person into custody if that individual is deemed an imminent danger to themselves or others.

Haas and other gun-control advocates say it makes more sense to take guns away from individuals who are a danger than to lock up those people, noting that people who pose a danger often are simply violent, not mentally ill.

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“Ultimately this reflects the stranglehold the gun lobby has on the Republicans,” Moran said. “They would rather incarcerate an individual than confiscate the firearm. They’re placing gun rights above an individual’s freedom.”

The commission has 13 members, seven of whom are either Democratic legislators or appointees of the Democratic governor and the attorney general. Only the members who are legislators get to vote on whether to recommend a certain piece of legislation to the General Assembly.

Of the nine commission members who are also legislators, six are Republicans, three Democrats.

One of the three, Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), will be absent as she recovers from a broken ankle and bypass surgery. She said she will be watching the live stream.

“I’m going to push and ask questions, and [I’m] hopeful we take in everything from both sides of the argument, and that we don’t let it just go in some black hole,” said Del. Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria), a commission member.

Monday’s hearing will run from 10 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., Tuesday’s from noon to 8 p.m. With dozens of speakers lined up, time will be strictly limited.

“I have an assault weapons ban bill that also deals with high-capacity magazines and silencers. And I will be allotted 180 seconds to present that important policy to Virginia, during what the Republicans promised would be a comprehensive study,” said Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria). “And 180 seconds shows how serious they are.”