When Virginia voters flipped their legislature from Republican to Democrat in 2020, pundits said the turnout was largely a reaction to the refusal of Republicans to enact what were called “gun-sense” laws. The change of party control was felt to be a response to the mass shooting in Virginia Beach, where a gunman killed 12.
Public pressure had failed the first time around. Gov. Robert Northam had called a special session with gun violence on the agenda, but it lasted only two hours, with the Republican majority passing nothing. After the Democrats gained legislative control in 2020, a package of gun safety laws was passed, and Virginia had established background checks on all gun sales, plus limiting handgun purchases to one a month.
Other legislation followed, giving Virginia some of the strongest gun safety laws in the country, including what’s known as a red flag law and a three-year prohibition of gun possession by people convicted of assaulting a family member. A red flag law allows authorities to seize guns from people who pose an immediate threat to themselves or others. But in a number of recent shootings nationwide, law enforcement officials and families have failed to implement the law, even when breakdowns or obsessions or social media postings have raised an alarm. It is admittedly not simple to invoke that law against your offspring when you are a parent hoping for the best for him and reluctant to admit your very own kid might be planning mass murder.
Now, in the month of November, Virginia has experienced two shootings: the three football players at the University of Virginia and the six Walmart employees who were shot by their night manager, who then killed himself. Recently elected Gov. Glenn Youngkin called the shootings “horrific” and “heart-breaking” and said this was a time to concentrate on supporting the bereaved families — that policy approaches would come later. “There will be a moment to talk about these things,” was one of his responses.
“Later” has never worked. It translates quickly into “never.” The families, of course, need support; but TV interviews indicate that the majority of them want gun control action by the government to stop the massacres. So what has Youngkin done in the wake of these shootings? He has proposed a huge increase in spending for treatment of mental illness, certainly much-needed but also a favored answer from Second Amendment defenders who want no mention of restrictions on guns. He has also backed increased security at schools.
And in the aftermath of the November shootings, columnists and others have noted that Youngkin has not mentioned guns. In fact, he promised during his campaign for governor that he would roll back the 2020 and 2021 gun safety laws as soon as Republicans were the majority in Virginia’s General Assembly again — and expressed hope that his party would achieve that soon.
None of this should be a surprise. Youngkin is a longtime ally of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association’s policies, as more than one critic puts it, are more in support of the gun industry than the people of the United States. Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, speaking at a NRA event, was quite pointed. She said she mourned the loss of life but said guns were not to blame for the shootings. Instead, she blamed fatherless homes, “emasculated” men, the lack of prayer in schools and pandemic safety protocols, according to reporting in the Washington Post.
Gun control advocates seek to tighten the access to guns and call for bans on assault rifles that are intended for military, not civilian, use and have the capacity to kill many people in seconds. Meanwhile, Gov. Youngkin has been quoted as saying that he and Virginia’s First Lady had “many sleepless nights” following the mass shootings this year in Buffalo and Uvalde. How many is that exactly? And how many sleepless nights do the surviving families have? How many do people all over the nation have, if they wake at two in the morning and wonder when a long rifle will rip their community apart?