Virginia crime commission begins hearing on gun violence

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. — The bipartisan commission tasked with looking at ways to prevent gun violence in the Commonwealth is meeting this week to review legislation proposed during Gov. Ralph Northam’s special session.

The special session was called after the deadly mass shooting in Virginia Beach in May. 

Gov. Northam called lawmakers back to Richmond on July 9 to work on legislation after 12 people were killed in a Virginia Beach municipal building. Virginia Republicans sent the bills to the Virginia State Crime Commission, adjourning after 90 minutes.

​The Virginia State Crime Commission is evaluating more than 70 bills for a report that will be given to the legislature before it returns to Richmond Nov. 18. That’s two weeks after voters pick who sits in all 140 seats of Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate for the 2020 General Assembly session. ​

A number of these bills, including reinstating the “One-Handgun a Month” policy and the Extreme Risk Protective Order, have been proposed before in the General Assembly but never made it to a full vote on the floor. 

House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-District 15) says the commission’s work will help give a “complete picture of gun violence in Virginia and hopefully make some good decisions moving forward.” ​​​

The commission was formed to study, report and make recommendations on criminal justice issues, one example is human trafficking. ​

The commission heard from various experts on gun violence legislation and mass shootings, Monday, looking at state and federal issues. 

Revealing data from the Chief Medical Examiner’s office shows two-thirds of gun deaths from 2007 to 2018 were suicides. The other third was homicides, which mainly happen in urban areas, such as regions including Richmond and Hampton Roads, as well as in communities of color. 

“This whole issue is multifaceted,” Del. Charniele Herring (D-District 46), said. “But, we have to start acting and realizing that people are dying.”​​​

Del. Gilbert is proposing a bill that creates a division to coordinate state and federal efforts to curb gang violence. It also gives funds to organizations helping former gang members and people trying to get out of a gang.

The data shared, Del. Gilbert says, reveals trends in the groups his proposal focuses on. 

“[Gun violence is] concentrated in places where we historically have been underserved involving underprivileged communities, communities of color…places where we can really make a difference,” Del. Gilbert explained. “One of the bills I put in is to address that specific kind of violence which appears to represent a bulk of the gun violence here in Virginia.” 

The commission also heard from a lead researcher from the U.S. Secret Service on a study about Mass Attacks in Public Spaces in 2018.

The main goal of these threat assessments is to help identify traits in someone who may be concerning to public safety, accessing those individuals and then figuring out what services can help manage the situation.

Of the incidents last year, the study points out that personal grievances were the most common motivation for an attack.

Mental health status was also noted. 

“There’s not just one cause or thing you can always point to, but oftentimes it’s confluences of incidents and events in a person’s life and their circumstances that unfortunately will lead to violence,” said Steven Driscoll, leader search specialist for the National Threat Assessment Center of the U.S. Secret Service.

While no two situations are exactly the same, Driscoll says reporting people who show threatening behavior can help.

Gov. Northam sent a letter to the commission as it begins its work, saying “I hope each of you will join me in rejecting baseless claims, stereotypes and excuses. Common sense gun safety legislation has already saved lives, where implemented. It is past time to save lives in Virginia.” ​

Republicans say the special session was an election-year stunt to draw attention away from the scandal surrounding a photograph of a man dressed in blackface and another in a KKK robe on Northam’s yearbook page. ​

Sending the legislation to the crime commission, Republicans have said will allow lawmakers to thoroughly look at these issues. Democrats have called this a political stunt too, and are concerned about how long this process may take. 

“There’s no reason that we should not be able to endorse some legislation,” Del. Herring said.  “So, I feel that it is a stalling tactic.”

Members of the public will be able to share their thoughts on what should be done Tuesday. Lawmakers will also then present their bills to the group. ​

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