Opinion: Commentary: Taking on Political Inaction Around Gun Violence Prevention

Opinion: Commentary: Taking on Political Inaction Around Gun Violence Prevention

In his inaugural speech on Jan. 13, 2018 Gov. Ralph Northam proclaimed, “If we are going to build a healthier Virginia for everyone, we must address the public health crisis of gun violence.”

Just four weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, one of the deadliest mass shootings occurred at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a former student killed 17 students and faculty. Less than three weeks following the Parkland shootings the Alexandria City Council and the Alexandria City School Board adopted resolutions calling on the federal government and the Virginia General Assembly to adopt common-sense gun laws. Both resolutions received little or no attention, and were particularly shunned in Richmond where the General Assembly tabled every gun control bill brought forth by a Democrat.

Such inaction was especially callous in the face of such statistics as:

  • Virginia is one of 17 states where more people are killed annually by gunfire than in car accidents.

  • Virginia ranks fourth among the states for highest number of individuals killed in mass shootings.

  • Suicide rates in Virginia have been slowly increasing over the last two decades, with handguns the most common cause of death in suicides in almost 60 percent of the cases.

  • In Virginia women are killed with guns by intimate partners at a rate that is 21 percent higher than the national average.

The Alexandria City School Board’s resolution had a particularly trenchant sentence that captured so well the state of affairs related to gun violence prevention within the Commonwealth: “The ongoing political inaction is failing our children.” A less polite way of saying this would be that the ongoing political inaction at the state and federal levels of government leaves our kids and families needlessly and irresponsibly at risk of gun violence.

In to this void of political inaction – which has prevailed far too long – a small but dedicated group of civic-minded Alexandrians has stepped forward to propose some modest legislative changes within the city and in Richmond to lower the level of risk of exposure to gun violence for our children and families. We firmly believe that with occurrence after occurrence of federal inaction sound, common sense gun control must begin at the local and state levels.

In the immediate wake of the tragic shootings in Florida, school officials and elected leaders in Alexandria and around the Commonwealth undoubtedly revisited security protocols and safety measures to ensure that nothing had been overlooked and to examine what, if anything, they could learn from the Parkland experience. We support such efforts; Alexandria must not be caught in the lens of afterthought believing “it could never happen here.”

Although the risk of death or injury by firearm of a child, teacher or employee while at school can never be zero, it is probably as close to zero as it has ever been. David Ropeik, an instructor at Harvard and author of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts,” says, “the chance of a child being shot and killed in a public school is extraordinarily low. Not zero — no risk is. But it’s far lower than many people assume, especially in the glare of heart-wrenching news coverage after an event like Parkland. And it’s far lower than almost any other mortality risk a kid faces, including traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease while in school or suffering a life-threatening injury playing … sports.”

So this begs the question: do we not owe it to our kids, our families and our fellow citizens to invest as much attention and resources to preventing injury and death by firearms in non-school environments as we invest in making our kids safer while in school? Our small alliance is committed to putting the spotlight on many of the areas where gun violence prevention and reduction is “undernourished”.

Some national data highlights those concerns very well:

  • Among injury-related deaths, firearms are the second leading cause behind car accidents for children ages 1 – 17.

  • About one-third of American children live in homes with firearms, and of those households, 43 percent contain at least one unlocked firearm.

  • Suicide accounts for nearly two-thirds of gun deaths in the U.S, killing over 21,000 Americans each year.

  • Since 2007, child firearm suicides increased by more than 70 percent and are now responsible for more than 500 deaths of children in America each year.

  • Domestic violence claims at least 2,000 lives and many more injuries each year, and 70 percent of the victims are women. More than half the time, the weapon used to carry out an “intimate partner” homicide is a gun.

As a result of discussions with key leaders on City Council, including newly elected members, the Alexandria community can expect to see debate early on in 2019 over a few legislative proposals e.g. keeping illegal guns off the streets, encouraging responsible storage practices of gun owners, particularly those with children in the home, that taken together should reduce the risk of gun violence against our children and others.

However, if progress at the local level beyond the aforementioned measures is to occur, the General Assembly must begin the hard work of restoring a significant degree of authority to regulate firearms to local governments, much of which had been usurped or at least heavily restrained by NRA-backed legislation within the General Assembly over the past decade or so. To that end, we are asking the Alexandria delegation to the General Assembly to rally behind two specific measures during the 2019 session:

  • Grant localities the authority to prohibit firearms in public buildings, e.g., City Hall, recreation centers, libraries, department of health, etc., and,

  • Remove key exemptions in current law to prohibiting possession of firearms of any type on school property.

Such actions would put local governments on a path toward equal partnership with our governor in his continued quest to “build a healthier Virginia for everyone,” by beginning to address the public health crisis of gun violence.

The authors are former Mayor Kerry Donley, Vice-Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, and Richard Merritt, member, Alexandria Public Health Advisory Commission