Young children and teenagers in Virginia have proved they can get their hands on guns and harm themselves and others. The firearms might have been right in their own homes.
Against this backdrop, lawmakers in the General Assembly passed almost no new gun legislation this year to stem the ongoing carnage. It was as if the blood-soaked status quo was acceptable.
More than 44,300 people died of gun violence last year nationwide, down slightly from 2021; 54% of those killings were suicides, the Gun Violence Archive reports. Firearms are the leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 17 in Virginia, according to statistics provided by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.
In Virginia, you can blame philosophical differences among the parties for a lack of progress in the Assembly, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted. Democrats, who control the state Senate, tend to focus on preventing violence and seeking holistic solutions. Republicans, who control the House of Delegates, often prefer boosting prison terms for specific crimes.
I favor the former approach because it focuses, in part, on the underlying reasons why people choose guns to settle disputes. Intervention can prevent foolish and fatal decision-making.
Gun violence intervention can prevent foolish and fatal decision-making.
One of the few gun-related bills sent to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk provides a tax credit up to $300 if a resident buys firearm safety devices, like a gun safe or lock box. HB2387, sponsored by Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, gained near-total approval in the General Assembly.
“While I believe that there is so much more we need to do and should do to support sensible gun violence prevention in Virginia, the reality is that we have a Republican governor and House majority that would prefer to loosen gun laws rather than tighten them,” Lopez said by email, in explaining his bill’s limited approach.
“If this saves even one curious child from hurting themselves or others, or prevents one suicidal teen from taking their life, it is worth it,” he added.
Youngkin is reviewing the legislation, a gubernatorial spokeswoman said Wednesday.
It’s telling that this sensible, non-controversial bill even garnered the support of the National Rifle Association, an organization usually hostile to limits on firearms. “This is certainly an initiative we have supported in other states. We’re happy to support this one here as well,” D.J. Spiker, NRA state and local government affairs director for Virginia, said at an earlier General Assembly hearing.
An NRA spokeswoman told me this week she wasn’t sure when the Fairfax-based group last endorsed similar legislation in the commonwealth. I doubt it was recently.
For example, the NRA website contends, with its typical hyperbole: “Our rights are under attack like never before. Join today.”
Really? Americans own more than 400 million firearms. That’s more than one handgun, rifle or shotgun for every man, woman and infant in the United States. If gun rights are truly “under attack,” what would the nation look like with no pushback against firearms?
Virginia’s residents will take any progress on curtailing gun tragedies – especially those involving children and young adults. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported gunshots have now surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death for teenagers in the country.
Look what’s happened just over the past 10 days in the commonwealth:
- Marquan Mitchell, 13, was fatally shot Friday night in Richmond in an apparent accident. Authorities said he had been making a video using guns as props when one fired. “We have too many damn guns in this community,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said.
- A Richmond circuit court judge sentenced Christian J. Alexander Algarin, 17 at the time of a 2021 ambush killing, to serve 35 years in prison for gunning down his former friend.
- Similarly, a Granby High School student was charged for bringing a gun to the Norfolk school on Tuesday. Norfolk police said the handgun had been stolen.
This brief list was culled from local media outlets around Virginia. Imagine what the tally would have been if I’d checked every daily news source and included people of all ages.
How is this acceptable? Why, when it comes to guns, are we so radically different from other wealthy, industrialized nations?
Joseph Richardson Jr. is a gun violence researcher and professor of African-American studies and medical anthropology at the University of Maryland. He told me one key to reducing gun violence is more intervention and prevention at the local level. He also cited programs that do street outreach and defuse conflicts.
A group called Chicago Cred has had some success by targeting specific neighborhoods there using street outreach, counseling and employment. The group works in a city, however, that suffered more than 800 homicides in 2021 and 695 last year.
Notably, Richardson said he and other associates delve more into possible solutions instead of looking solely at firearms. “Just focusing on the guns is a narrow and myopic approach,” he told me. Rather, researchers want to know why people are picking up guns and causing so many deaths and injuries.
That tack suggests gun control advocates have already lost. It’s a sobering conclusion.
While reporting this column, President Joe Biden signed an executive order increasing the number of background checks for gun sales, but he also said Congress could do even more to promote gun safety. He also has called for an assault weapons ban; one was in effect from 1994 to 2004.
With the tax credit bill, the Virginia General Assembly incentivized gun owners to safeguard their weapons. That’s a small, positive step.
It’s not nearly enough.