by John F. Seymour, a 40-year resident of Arlington
My wife — a former public school teacher — helps out regularly in our grandson’s first grade classroom at Abingdon Elementary School in south Arlington. Although she has been volunteering for years, she experienced last month — for the first time — an Arlington Public Schools lock-down and “active shooter” drill. Since 2016, Virginia law has required a minimum of four such drills annually at all Virginia public schools.
The drill was conducted calmly and efficiently, she was pleased to note. When the drill was announced, children and volunteers quieted and walked quickly into the classroom closet, away from windows and doors. Lights were turned off, exterior doors were locked, and curtains and blinds were lowered to block an intruder’s vision. The closet was crowded, stuffy and dark but, except for one child whispering “I think I need to go to the bathroom,” it was mercifully free of drama.
She wondered, however, how this new rite of school passage came to be and whether adults were, in fact, violating the trust of the children with whom they were closeted. Is this the best we can do to address the recent spate of school shootings? And, she thought, what are the potential psychological effects of school lockdown drills on young children? Although no studies have been conducted to date, it appears to some observers that lockdown drills are far more effective in protecting the school’s “institutional concern for reputational risk-management” and potential civil liability than the children themselves.
Last year, Virginians had held out some hope that their legislators might address school shootings in a meaningful way when the House of Delegates convened its “Select Committee on School Safety” to review the Commonwealth’s school safety policies and practices. That hope was quickly extinguished when Chairman (and Speaker of the House) Kirk Cox (R) announced that gun control and gun violence were outside the Committee’s scope.
The Committee’s report, released in late 2018, was as anodyne and toothless as most expected it to be. Its recommendations ranged from the obvious (“student mental health is a growing and multi-faceted issue”), to the purposely obscure and jargon-filled (“localities should establish consensus-driven stakeholder processes” for school planning), to those reflecting a kind of tired resignation (schools should explore the purchasing of “ballistic barriers,” such as bullet proof white boards and backpacks). Each recommendation, however, had a common characteristic — it wholly ignored the role of gun proliferation in enabling school shootings. It was as if Richmond established a “Select Committee” to consider teen pregnancy and then directed it to examine only the strength and durability of condoms.
Although Arlington’s representatives to the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates have proposed, as in past years, a package of common sense and popular gun control measures, none have survived Committee review (an outcome in which the National Rifle Association has publicly exulted). Republicans chairing powerful committees have refused to consider “red flag bills” intended to temporarily separate persons from their firearms when a court finds that they pose a substantial danger to themselves or others; universal background checks prior to all gun sales; reinstatement of Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law; prohibiting persons subject to protective orders from possessing firearms; banning assault-type rifles; imposing home security requirements to prevent children from accessing firearms; and requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement, among many others.
With the session scheduled to end in early March and nearly all of the Democrats’ gun control measures already dead, what can be expected from Richmond?
“Open Carry” Me Back to Jesus: Republican majorities have consistently rejected Democratic proposals to bar guns from public libraries (H.B. 1856) (2019), allow localities to restrict firearms at meetings of local governments (S.B. 1303 (2019)), or even strengthen firearm storage requirements for licensed day care providers (H.B. 2372 (2019)). Indeed, Republican Senator Dick Black recently introduced legislation to repeal a 140-year old state law prohibiting the carrying of guns and other dangerous weapons into a place of worship during a service (S.B. 1024 (2019)). Several weeks ago, the Senate narrowly passed the bill on a party-line vote.
The bill epitomizes the NRA’s deeply cynical approach to mass shootings. In the wake of the African Methodist church shooting by a white supremacist in South Carolina in 2015, Charles Cotton, an NRA Board member, blamed the pastor killed in the South Carolina shooting for the deaths of his eight congregates. Cotton asserted that the churchgoers might still be alive if the pastor (who also served as a state senator) had supported a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons without permits.
The NRA has not taken any position on other white supremacist firearms-filled events, such as the Charlottesville “United the Right” Rally, except to forcefully oppose all efforts by the Democrats to prohibit guns within public spaces during municipal permitted events, (H.B. 1956) (2019), and oppose efforts to add Charlottesville to the group of Virginia towns and cites that are allowed to prohibit assault weapons in public spaces. (S.B. 1482) (2019). Even white supremacists, the NRA maintains, should have ample public space in which to exercise their Second Amendment rights — including places of worship.
Pistol-Packin School Marms: Republicans have not yet been successful in amending current law to allow the arming of school teachers. During prior sessions, the General Assembly declined to enact such legislation. Governor McAuliffe expressed concern about arming teachers and threatened vetoes, and both the Virginia Education Association and the Virginia Parent Teachers Association expressed their strong opposition to the practice. Attorney General Mark Herring, in 2018, also issued an opinion concluding that one rural Virginia County — Lee County Public Schools — lacked the statutory authority to arm teachers and other school personnel.
Nevertheless, Lee County has filed a lawsuit in Virginia Circuit Court asking for judicial relief and a declaration that certain school employees may be deemed “conservators of the peace” and carry guns on school property. The prior Virginia Attorney General and Republican Gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli is representing Lee County in the lawsuit. Depending on the outcome of the suit, Virginia schools’ quarterly lock-down drills may soon be overseen by gun-toting teachers and school aides.
Priming the Iron Pipeline: Until it was repealed in 2012, Virginia’s “one-gun-a-month” law prohibited the purchase of more than one handgun per person during any 30-day period. Virginia adopted the law when legislators could no longer ignore compelling evidence that Virginia was the primary source of guns trafficked to other jurisdictions — along the “Iron Pipeline” of Interstate 95 — and used to commit crimes throughout the northeastern United States. To many, it also seemed that a diet of a dozen guns a year should satisfy even the most ardent law-abiding gun owner.
The Gifford Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence has reported that, in the years following the law’s passage, the likelihood that a Virginia dealer was the source of guns recovered in northeastern cities declined by more than two-thirds in states throughout the Northeast. More recently, press reports by the Washington Post and others have documented the continued importance of widespread interstate trafficking of Virginia firearms in violent crimes conducted elsewhere.
As in past years, Democrats have introduced proposals to restore Virginia’s former statutory prohibition on the sale of more than one gun per month. (S.B. 1446 (2019), (H.B. 2604 (2019). Though broadly supported by both citizens and policing organizations, Republican legislators have refused to allow the proposal to go to a full vote. Absent reinstatement of the law, it appears certain that gun traffickers will continue to purchase guns in “gun rights” states like Virginia for re-sale to and re-use by criminals in Northeastern states that have enacted much tougher gun laws.
Beyond “Thoughts and Prayers.” Given staunch Republican opposition to even the most modest gun control measures, is there any hope for sensible gun control in the near term? Surprisingly, there are a couple of promising signs. Most important, Republican control of both the House of Delegates and Senate hangs by a thread. The Virginia GOP currently holds a narrow two-vote majority in both the State Senate and House of Delegates and Virginia Democrats have real prospects to control one or both houses in Richmond following the 2019 elections. All 120 seats in the General Assembly and all 40 Senate seats are up for election. Moderate suburban voters who support gun control tend to vote Democrat and have been voting in greater numbers. In addition, federal judges recently selected a House of Delegates redistricting map that heavily favors Democrats and could markedly increase the likelihood that Democrats will control the House following the fall elections.
In addition, recent case law suggests that urban counties and municipalities such as Arlington and McLean — which find anathema the absolutist view of gun rights espoused in more rural parts of the state— may have a new tool with which to regulate guns within their jurisdictions. In Teixeira v. County of Alameda, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (ruling en banc) recently held that a County could require a prospective gun store owner to obtain a conditional use permit and comply with the County’s zoning ordinances. Those ordinances required, among other things, that businesses selling firearms be located at least 500 feet from any school, day care center, liquor store, and residentially zoned districts. In May of last year, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the applicant’s appeal of the Circuit Court’s decision.
Citizens in Arlington and other suburban jurisdictions have, in recent years, expressed outrage that their local officials cannot use common local zoning and land use powers to limit access to guns. The proposed siting of gun shops in residential neighborhoods near a school in McLean and across from a day care center in the Lyon Park neighborhood in Arlington resulted in extraordinary public concern and opposition. The Teixeira and other local land use cases suggest that localities can, consistent with the Second Amendment, employ their zoning powers to restrict local gun sale and distribution to promote public health.
In Virginia, however, localities still must contend with Virginia’s broad preemption statute which bars nearly all local government powers that seek to regulate firearms. Northern Virginia legislators have annually pursued legislation to modify the Virginia preemption statute and recover local land use and zoning powers over firearms. This year — as in past years — their efforts were defeated by legislators from hard-line gun rights districts. (H.B. 1992) (2019). That may all soon change, however. Or so we pray.