Protecting Both Gun Rights and Public Safety

Protecting Both Gun Rights and Public Safety

State Sen. Dave Marsden (D-37)

State Sen. Dave Marsden (D-37) Courtesy photo

It was an historic year in the Virginia General Assembly. We passed a once-in-a-generation transportation funding bill and laid the foundation for 400,000 thousand Virginians to gain health insurance through an expansion of Medicaid that will create nearly 30,000 new health care jobs.

But which issue do you think generated the most e-mails and phone calls to my legislative office? The Second Amendment. A few constituents called for an all-out ban on certain high capacity magazines and assault weapons, and a few others expressed a desire to close the “gun show loop hole” to stop the private sale of weapons at commercial gun shows without background checks. But the majority of the communications defended the Second Amendment and asked me not to support any changes, at all, to our gun laws. A large number of these folks passed on form-messages written by gun advocacy groups. A much smaller number of email writers provided thoughtful ideas and suggestions of their own. In responding to these messages by e-mail, or by phone calls and in-person meetings, it is my experience that the Second Amendment proponents who contacted me fell into three broad categories:

  1. Thoughtful people with genuine concerns about the constitutional ramifications of the Second Amendment and our nation’s problem with violence. These individuals tended to be willing and able to hold an open dialogue about the problems our communities face with gun violence.

  2. People who passed on pre-written messages that said that they are responsible gun owners, who are sorry about what happened in Sandy Hook, Conn., but who do not want the guns or ammunition they may purchase, or the method by which they might procure them, to be changed in any way. These individuals tended to explain gun violence as stemming from mental health problems, criminal activity, video games and violent themes in movies, television and music. When pressed for more dialogue, they tended to have little more to add other than a suspicion that the government wants to take their guns away and that the Second Amendment is absolute.

  3. The last and fortunately smallest group were those who tended to tell me who they might need to shoot and under what circumstances. They imagined situations where they have to take down a shooter in a mall, defend their home from a street gang, or defend themselves from the tyranny of the government. These individuals generally believed that the only answer to gun violence is more guns.

I support the Second Amendment, quite simply, because it is the constitutional law of the land and I took an oath to defend the constitution. That is an oath I take very seriously. However, we now lose more people every year to firearm deaths than we do to traffic accidents. That is a situation that alarms me greatly.

When people purchase a gun, it is usually for a good reason. They purchase a gun to protect themselves or to participate in shooting sports. Yet, while that gun never changes its nature, the life situations and circumstances of the gun owner often change dramatically. No one ever foresees that their adorable toddler may grow up to be an angry and disturbed adolescent, or that their occasional drinking in young adulthood will turn into raging alcoholism, or that a sane and well-adjusted family member will deteriorate over the years into mental illness and despair. In these cases, that same responsible gun owner’s gun may be used in ways the owner never could have imagined. Working as I did for many years in the juvenile court and running our juvenile detention center in Fairfax for 17 years, I have seen the look on too many peoples’ faces who never imagined that the device they bought for self-defense or sport would be used in a tragic shooting or a criminal act.

I do not have the answer as to how we protect Second Amendment rights while still addressing public safety needs. I don’t believe that there is any one answer. What does strike me, however, is that some elements of the gun owning community (the ones that tend to be the loudest) exhibit very little willingness to compromise. That is a problem for all of us. Over 70 members of the Virginia Citizen’s Defense League visited me in Richmond this year, mostly carrying weapons. These constituents were adamant and sincere in their beliefs that restricting gun ownership, regulating sales, or adding any additional requirements would infringe on their constitutional rights while doing nothing to promote public safety. In their view, the more guns we have the safer we become. With over 300 million weapons in circulation and gun deaths continuing to be a national crisis, there continues to be a far too limited number of individuals and advocacy groups willing to engage in meaningful compromise.

I agree that guns are often not the problem, but all too often they are. Many people believe that criminals establish the intent to commit crimes and then seek out a weapon to execute that intent. In reality, especially with young people, they come across a gun first and then develop the intent to do harm. When youths find guns, it does not lead to thoughts of shoplifting or vandalism … it leads to violence. The gun becomes the parent to the act.

When I am able to talk to individuals in the first category mentioned above, we typically can agree that requiring background checks on private sales at commercial gun shows would offer real safety benefits without interfering with any law abiding citizen’s ability to obtain firearms. I thank these individuals for their thoughtful contribution to my knowledge of this subject area. Sadly, most of the people who communicate with me are unwilling to give an inch. For many good people, there is an obsession with guns and their rights surrounding them that precludes meaningful dialogue. No one in the legislature wants to take guns away from anyone who obeys the law and does not suffer from certain mental health infirmities. Many of us, however, do want to reduce the dangers of guns without unduly restricting gun rights.

I introduced two bills this year to do just that. They both dealt with gun owner responsibility and accountability. The first would have held gun owners civilly responsible if it could be shown through clear and convincing evidence, the highest civil standard, that the owner did not take reasonable measures to prevent the theft or misappropriation of their gun and the gun was then used in a crime. The second bill required gun thefts to be reported to police. Responsible gun owners should be open to this, but both bills were defeated in sub-committee with little attention or debate.

I will continue to further the discussion around protecting both the Second Amendment and public safety. Improving mental health outreach and reducing media violence should also be on the table. Not doing anything is unthinkable.