Chelsea Parsons is vice president for gun violence prevention policy at the Center for American Progress. Ed Chung is vice president for criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress.
In the aftermath of the horrific mass shooting in a municipal building in Virginia Beach on May 31 that left 12 people dead and four others injured, a surprising thing happened in the state capital. Rather than the usual round of empty “thoughts and prayers” by some policymakers and passionate calls for action by others, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced that the Virginia legislature would indeed be called on to take action in a special session focused on proposals to prevent gun violence, scheduled to begin Tuesday.
But there are indications that the special session will be made a farce by legislators more eager to play politics than address an urgent public safety issue.
On the heels of a regular legislative session that was marked by decidedly purposeful inaction to address gun violence in the commonwealth, the special session is significant. More than a dozen bills were introduced for consideration in the regular session to help reduce gun violence in Virginia, including measures directly relevant to the Virginia Beach shooting, such as a ban on high-capacity magazines and a measure giving local governments the authority to prohibit guns in certain public buildings. All of these gun-safety bills, many of which have broad support by Virginians, were voted down in a party-line committee vote in the House of Delegates in January. None received even cursory consideration, much less a substantive hearing or consideration on the House floor.
The legislature now is presented with a much needed do-over. But rather than take this opportunity to have a good-faith and substantive debate about how to prevent gun violence and protect all of Virginia’s communities, House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) has instead said that the legislature will use this time to consider proposals to increase criminal penalties, including by increasing mandatory minimum sentences, for individuals who commit gun-related crimes.
Not only is this a transparent political ploy designed to divert attention from the desperate need to strengthen Virginia’s gun laws, but it also is an ill-advised and ineffective way to approach the gun violence problem.
It may seem that increasing criminal penalties is a logical way to reduce and deter crime, especially considering that the precipitous decline in crime from the early 1990s to today coincided with legislatures approving longer sentences for criminal activity. But criminologists have concluded that only a fraction of crime declines —- 10 to 25 percent — can be attributed to “tough on crime” policies that led to mass incarceration. Other scholars have demonstrated that the more effective deterrent is the greater likelihood of being apprehended, not the length of incarceration.
Yet lawmakers have too often reverted to increasing criminal penalties to prevent and reduce violence without any evidence that doing so is either needed or effective. Policymakers should not rely solely on the criminal code to address social problems. Before adding or increasing any criminal penalties as an effort to address gun violence, the Virginia legislature should closely examine where there has been insufficient attention on other factors that contribute to high rates of gun-related violence, including lax gun laws that allow easy access to lethal weapons, the distrust between communities and public safety agencies that inhibit a cooperative approach and the lack of investment in struggling communities where gun violence is prevalent.
Let’s be very clear: Cox’s approach to this special session is a disingenuous attempt to pivot attention from the need for stronger regulation of firearms to continue serving the special interests of the gun lobby, whose home base is in Fairfax.
Virginia has much to do to when it comes to enacting comprehensive laws that will help prevent gun violence in communities throughout the commonwealth, not just punish those who perpetrate these offenses after the fact. The list offered by Northam represents many of the most crucial needs in the commonwealth, including ensuring that every gun sale includes a background check, enacting extreme-risk protection orders to help family members disarm a person in crisis who poses a risk of harm to self or others, limiting access to lethal accessories such as silencers and high-capacity magazines and empowering local governments to prohibit gun-carrying in public buildings. It’s a wonder why Cox would block these common-sense measures.
And while there is scant evidence to suggest that increasing criminal penalties is an effective crime-reduction strategy, we know that stronger gun laws are effective at preventing gun-related tragedies. A Center for American Progress analysis found that the 10 states with the weakest gun laws collectively had an aggregate rate of gun violence that is more than three times higher than the 10 states with the strongest gun laws.
A person is killed with a gun in Virginia every 10 hours, and most of their stories never make the local news. The residents of the commonwealth deserve much more than political gamesmanship when it comes to this issue.