By Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, Delegate Mike Mullin, and Delegate Jeff Bourne
A year ago, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, the Speaker of the House created a Select Committee on School Safety. The three of us were honored to be chosen to be part of that Committee, and during its work we put out a series of policy proposals for school safety with a “student-centered” approach that would look at policies in a holistic way. Ultimately, a student who is safe is a student who is safe to learn, and we need the broadest possible approach to what safety means. We succeeded in adding more counselors to schools and passing legislation that ensured school administrators, law enforcement, and the community all understand their specific and different roles in keeping students safe and well-supported in every way.
However, our proposals to the Committee specifically about gun violence did not even receive a hearing by the committee — they were dismissed without discussion. This means the Committee didn’t address one of the most important components of student safety. A Washington Post investigation found that in 80 percent of the 145 school shootings since 1999 the weapon had come from the child’s home or the home of a friend or relative. A few simple proposals we put forward would begin to help with that 80 percent of weapons that are taken from parents or other’s homes and then used in shootings. First, requiring reporting of lost or stolen weapons, second, tightening improper storage laws, and third, creating red flag laws to track dangerous situations.
These proposals were dead on arrival. Speaker Cox declared that the School Safety Committee would not address gun safety legislation because he did not want to “allow more partisan issues to distract us.” But you cannot address student safety fully without some discussion of gun violence itself. There were 20 shootings with four or more victims in the United States in 2018. That number pales next to the drumbeat of other day-to-day violence — a gunshot at a school bus stop, a non-fatal gunshot wound at a school event — all of which disrupt lives, communities, and destroy students’ sense of safety. Last year, City of Richmond buses had been struck by gunfire three times, while in Chesterfield two people were shot 100 yards from students boarding a bus. In the United States in 2018, there were 24 school shootings with injuries or deaths, including 35 deaths, 79 injuries, and 28 students killed.
However, gun violence does not just put people at risk in schools, it also puts them at risk in all public places. The Virginia Beach shooting happened in a municipal center. Here in Richmond, Markiya Dickson was killed by gunfire at a picnic in a public park. These public spaces, whether they are schools, places of worship, parks, or government buildings are where democracy and community thrive. When they are constantly unsafe, our civil society is at risk.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, wrote eloquently about the power of civil society in America. He wrote that engagement in the public square was, “The only way opinions and ideas can be renewed, hearts enlarged, and human minds developed.” When our public square is insecure, we have lost more than a meeting place. Virginians are rightfully horrified by the gun violence that drives us out of these public places. Shootings, large and small, have become so common that a Henrico County student, in a Washington Post op-ed, labeled her generation the “Massacre Generation,” saying, “It was last Saturday when it hit me that my entire life has been framed by violence.”
We have an important opportunity to take action in the Special Session called by Governor Northam on July 9th. We must take action — both for the safety of our students and the maintenance of our civil society. We can uphold Second Amendment rights while putting into place safeguards that save lives. A recent study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that universal background checks were associated with a 14.9 percent reduction in homicide. Red and blue states have both implemented stronger improper storage laws, as well. Simple policies like those are not a violation of the rights established in our Constitution — and they are supported by bipartisan majorities of Americans. But the Republican leadership of the House has said they will send these ideas to committee to be killed — never substantively debated or voted on by the representatives of all Virginians.
These bills deserve an up or down vote on the floor. Virginians deserve to know where their legislators stand on this issue. It has been ten years since Virginia Tech, and a drumbeat of violence still renders our communities unsafe. Yet, we still continue to allow the Republican leadership to bury meaningful reform without vote or debate as tragedy after tragedy occurs. Enough is enough.