Commentary: Clearing an Obstacle to Gun Violence Prevention in Virginia

Commentary: Clearing an Obstacle to Gun Violence Prevention in Virginia

Virginia has the dubious distinction of having had the biggest mass murder in history—Virginia Tech in 2007, and the first televised shooting—Smith Mountain Lake in 2015. Yet, the Commonwealth has never had a serious public debate on preventing gun violence. With the leadership being shown by the President and the strong interest on the part of the public, the 2016 session of the General Assembly is time for that debate.

Every annual session of the General Assembly is the same: A few legislators bravely put in their commonsense, can’t-we-do-a-little-something-about-gun-violence? bills. Now these bills even have the support of the Governor. In the House of Delegates the bills get referred to the Militia and Police Committee made up of mostly NRA sympathizers. The chairman of that committee sends the bills to a subcommittee stacked with four legislators who have never seen a gun-related bill they like unless it eases regulations or restrictions and with one other legislator. That subcommittee hears the bills and summarily defeats them 4 to 1.

Their actions are totally predictable. Same thing happens every year.

When Republicans gained a majority in the House of Delegates they changed the rules to allow the Speaker to refer bills of his choosing to the Rules Committee where they could be sent to the floor of the House of Delegates without recommendation. The official explanation for the change was that there could be bills of such public significance that they needed to be debated by the full legislative body and not simply by a committee.

Bills to enhance public safety and prevent gun violence seem to me to rise to the level of importance that they should be debated by the full body and not be defeated by just four of the 100 members of the House. The Speaker of the House who has absolute authority as to where bills are referred could simply refer gun-violence prevention bills to the Rules Committee where they would be sent to the floor of the House of Delegates without a recommendation.

The ensuing debate and votes would clearly show whether the elected representatives in the House are standing up for the people who elected them, a majority of whom support commonsense gun violence prevention measures, or do these delegates represent the gun groups who feed money to their campaigns and who threaten them with primary opposition if they do not go along.

Cynics say the rules change to allow the Rules Committee to send bills to the floor without recommendation was meant to create a situation where progressive bills could be referred to the floor to force Democrats to “go on the board” with a recorded vote on issues like a potential tax increase. Certainly the Republicans in power would not be embarrassed or intimidated by having to vote on public safety measures related to ending gun violence that the majority of citizens in poll after poll indicate they support.

Preventing gun violence in a state that has seen two examples of the worst of the carnage is too important an issue for four legislators in a cramped conference room to decide for the Commonwealth. There is a way as described above for the issue to get a full hearing; the time has come for the House of Delegates to give it the time and public debate it warrants.