Commentary: Reconciling Bills, Ignoring Gun Violence

Commentary: Reconciling Bills, Ignoring Gun Violence

We have entered the final days of the General Assembly session, and the focus of the legislature has shifted from systematically addressing the more than 3,400 introduced bills and resolutions to conference committees — small groups of legislators charged with reconciling bills that have passed the House and Senate with slight (and sometimes not-so-slight) differences.

Two major pieces of legislation in conference are bills dealing with establishing a dedicated funding source for Metro and the starkly contrasting Senate and House budget proposals. Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax), who represents part of the 30th District, has been named as one of six House budget conferees. This is the first time since I was elected in 2003 that there are two House Democrats among the conferees. Senate conferees include Senators Janet Howell (D-Reston) and Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax). Howell represents part of Arlington and Saslaw's district covers part of Alexandria's west end.

Over the course of the 2018 session, the legislature has held lengthy floor debates on issues ranging from use of hands-free phones while driving to reopening the Colonial Downs horse racing track. However, one issue which has been notably absent from floor debate has been legislation to curb the epidemic of gun violence.

While over 60 bills were introduced this legislative session to address the epidemic of gun violence, nearly all of those bills were quietly and summarily dismissed by Republican-led committees and subcommittees along party-line votes. Legislation introduced in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre to make mass shootings less deadly such as bills that would ban bump stocks (SB1-Ebbin), provide universal background checks (SB5-Ebbin), or restrict the sale of high-capacity magazines (HB1145-Convirs-Fowler) were swiftly defeated.

Every 10 hours, a Virginian is killed with a gun. While devastating to those directly involved, many of these deaths rarely make the news. Legislation to address the reality of everyday gun violence, including bills to prohibit the possession of firearms by stalkers (HB1544-Murphy), exempt gun safes from retail sales tax to incentivize gun owners to keep guns where children can’t easily get to them (HB172-Filler-Corn), or reinstate the one-handgun-a-month limit (HB353-Reid) to stem the rapid export of crime guns to other states, were defeated as well.

Including the tragic events of Parkland, Fla., over 153,000 students attending more than 171 primary and secondary schools in the United States have experienced a shooting on campus since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Despite this, HB198, legislation introduced by Del. Rip Sullivan that would keep guns out of the hands of people who present a threat to themselves or others and that mirrors a proposal supported by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, was not even granted a hearing.

Only HB287, a bill to provide a special license plate for supporters of gun violence prevention, is still under consideration. I co-sponsored this legislation introduced by Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church).

One silver lining was that the vast majority of firearms legislation introduced this session focused on gun violence prevention. As a result of the 2017 election, we’ve been able to stop playing defense against bills to expand concealed carry reciprocity, permit Virginians to carry ninja stars, and introduce guns into domestic violence situations. A bill to allow guns in churches passed the Senate on a party line vote, but was quietly defeated in the House when the Speaker of the House assigned the bill to the Rules committee and neglected to have it taken up for consideration. A companion House bill was pulled from floor consideration and sent back to committee to be squelched.

This changing atmosphere surrounding gun violence has been met with bristling opposition by pro-gun legislators. Last Friday, the debate reached a boiling point. Delegate and US Senate candidate, Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) lashed out at House Democrats blaming “the abortion industry,” “broken families,” and the “welfare state for the gun violence epidemic.”

It has become clear that the voices of legislators alone cannot move this issue forward. In the aftermath of the school shooting that claimed 17 lives, the bravery and resilience of the young people in Parkland have moved and inspired action. Students throughout the country are standing in solidarity with the survivors and speaking out in loud, informed and passionate voices to amplify this message.

In Alexandria, over 1,000 TC Williams High School students led by Jay Falk and Hannah Miller, in coordination with over a dozen high schools in the capital region organized a day of action termed #WeAreAllEagles, in reference to the mascot of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The actions of young people are rekindling important debates in Washington about common-sense gun violence prevention measures such as bans on assault weapons, bump stocks, and instituting universal background checks. Their activism has begun to have widespread impact in the private sector as well. Under public pressure, several companies have discontinued discounts and other promotions for NRA members and retail giants WalMart and Dick’s Sporting Goods have raised the age to purchase firearms to 21.

Upcoming student-led actions include widespread school walkouts on March 14 to mark the one-month anniversary of the Parkland Shooting. Coincidentally, this is the same day as the rally at the NRA headquarters in memory of the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy that has been held on the 14th of each month since the shooting in Newtown, Conn. On Saturday March 24, students are leading the March For Our Lives to advocate for gun violence prevention reforms in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of sister marches are scheduled to occur simultaneously around the country, including ones in Charlottesville, Richmond, and Hampton Roads.

In order to coordinate our efforts as lawmakers to complement this grassroots activism, Delegate Kathleen Murphy and I have formed a General Assembly Gun Violence Prevention Caucus. Our first meeting was attended by over 25 members from both the House and the Senate and featured a discussion with the office of the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security. We discussed avenues available for reform, enforcement actions and other steps that the executive branch may be able to take, as well as crafting our 2019 agenda.

Local officials are also stepping up. The Alexandria City Council and Fairfax County School Board have passed resolutions in support of gun violence prevention. Alexandria School Board members will be voting on a similar resolution on March 8. Arlington Public Schools have issued a statement supporting the March 14 walkout and plan to issue a call to action for local legislators at an upcoming board meeting.

Led by the courageous students of Parkland, the time is now to channel outrage into activism and enact meaningful gun violence prevention. We can’t wait any longer.

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It is my continued honor to serve the people of the 30th District.