Virginia state capitol building in Richmond

The Virginia General Assembly meets in the state capitol building in Richmond.

After two days of public hearings, a state panel will begin preparing a report on 78 proposed gun bills ahead of a Nov. 18 special legislative session on gun violence. 

State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-26th, who serves as chairman of the State Crime Commission, said the commission had not yet begun its study of the proposed legislation, and hoped the report would be completed before the Nov. 18 session. 

“The best efforts of staff and members to predict the time necessary to conduct these studies varies and is variable,” Obenshain said.

The GOP-controlled General Assembly delayed the special session from its original start date in July, preferring to send the bills to the Virginia State Crime Commission for review before holding a vote on them. Republican leaders then decided to continue the work in a lame-duck session to be held after the Nov. 5 election.

Gov. Ralph Northam, who called the July special session in the wake of a May 31 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that killed 12 people and wounded four more, has been critical of the delay. 

“These proposals do not need further study. In fact, some of these measures were first recommended after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007,” Northam wrote in an Aug. 19 letter to the State Crime Commission. “The assertion that more study is needed—12 years and over 70 mass shootings after Virginia Tech—is inaccurate and inexcusable.”

Expert: Some gun laws more effective than others

The first day of hearings featured six hours of presentations from law enforcement, health professionals and academics and included firearms-related data, gun violence research and policy recommendations. 

Boston University researcher Claire Boine highlighted three laws that were most effective at reducing firearms homicides at the state level. The study, which analyzed the impacts of state firearm laws between 1991 and 2016, found that universal background checks, violent misdemeanor laws and “may-issue” laws resulted in the highest reductions in gun-related homicides during that time. 

May-issue states generally require a permit to carry a concealed handgun and allow state or local law-enforcement officials some discretion as to whether permits are approved. By contrast, Virginia is considered a “shall-issue” state, meaning permits shall be issued if applicants meet the state’s requirements.  

According to Boine, gun-related homicides in Virginia could be reduced by about 35%, or about 124 homicides per year, if all three laws were implemented. 

Boine’s research also found that bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines had no significant impact on the reduction of firearms homicides, but that high-capacity magazine bans could make a difference in mass shooting cases. Mass shootings account for about 1% of all gun-related homicides. 

“If you look at specific cases of mass shootings then a high-capacity magazine ban might make a difference,” Boine said. “In the Dayton and El Paso mass shootings for example, both times the shooter was stopped within 30 seconds of first opening fire, and yet in one case the shooter had time to kill 9 people and in the other 22. So it might make a difference whether the person used a 10-round magazine or a 30-round magazine when such small periods of time matter.”

Extreme-risk protective orders, also known as “red flag” laws, were too recent to include in the study, Boine said, but there is evidence the laws are associated with lower suicide rates.

State police: 644,373 concealed handgun permits in Va. 

Lt. Keenon Hook of the Virginia State Police gave a wide-ranging overview of firearms transactions and gun violence in Virginia over the last several decades. According to Hook, the data on Virginia gun transactions were primarily gleaned from purchases from licensed dealers because background checks at gun shows are optional. 

Hook said there are currently 2,438 registered firearms dealers in Virginia, of which about 1,500 are actively selling firearms on a regular basis. Between 2016 and 2018, more than 1.5 million firearms were purchased in Virginia. 

Sixty percent of firearms sales are approved instantly in Virginia, and 40% are delayed, according to Virginia State Police data. Delayed transactions require a technician to review the corresponding criminal history information -- most delayed transactions are approved within 20 to 30 minutes. 

“It really is just a matter of a human being looking at the record and determining whether it is the correct person and whether the offense in question is a bar to the purchase of a firearm,” Hook said. 

There are numerous state and federal laws dictating who can and can’t purchase a firearm, including felons, undocumented people, and people who have been acquitted on charges by reason of insanity. However, federal law dictates that a dealer may release the firearm to the purchaser on the third business day after submitting the transaction if a federal background check determination has not yet arrived. 

“Effectively, we have three days before that firearm is at risk of being released after the transaction,” Hook said. 

Virginia State Police data also showed that there are 644,373 active concealed handgun permits in Virginia as of August 14, 2019. In 2018, 166,078 concealed handgun permits were issued or renewed, and 583 concealed handgun permits were revoked because of disqualifying offenses. 

State health official: Suicides by gun on the rise

Two Virginia health professionals presented statistics on fatal and non-fatal gun deaths in Virginia. Lauren Yerkes, Injury and Violence Prevention Epidemiologist at the Virginia Department of Health, said there were 784 hospitalizations due to gun-related non-fatal injuries in 2017, down from 820 in 2016. 

Virginia Department of Health data also showed that 87% of hospitalizations due to gun-related, non-fatal injuries occurred among males in 2017, and 67% of hospitalizations due to gun-related, non-fatal injuries occurred among African Americans.

“Continued monitoring of emergency department and hospitalization data combined with comprehensive injury and violence prevention programming can lead to more timely prevention and intervention of gun-related injuries in Virginia,” Yerkes said. 

Statewide Forensic Epidemiologist, Kathrin Hobron, provided data on gun-related deaths in Virginia. According to Hobron, roughly one-third of gun-related deaths in Virginia are homicides and two-thirds are suicides. There were 674 gun-related suicides and 347 gun-related homicides in Virginia in 2018. 

The number of gun-related suicides in Virginia has steadily increased over the last decade, from 493 in 2007 to 674 in 2018. White men and Native American men had the highest rates of gun-related suicide between 2013 and 2017. Out of total number of gun-related suicides in Virginia during that time, 79.8% involved a handgun.

Prince William County ranked seventh in the overall number of gun-related suicides by county between 2013 and 2017. There were 23 gun-related suicides in Prince William in 2017, 22 in 2016, 15 in 2015, 14 in 2014, and 18 in 2013.

Between 2007 and 2018, 72% of all homicides involved guns in Virginia, and black males and males ages 20-24 had the highest rates of gun-relate homicide, Hobron said. 

Petersburg City had the highest gun-related homicide rates between 2013 and 2017, followed by Richmond City, Danville City, Emporia City and Norfolk City. Between 2013 and 2018, 79.5% of gun-related homicides were committed using a handgun. 

Speakers back ‘red flag’ law

The State Crime Commission spent the second day of the hearing receiving comments from organizations, interest groups and members of the public, and hearing from lawmakers who introduced gun legislation ahead of the special session. 

Democrats and Republicans serving on the crime commission invited a wide range of speakers from advocacy groups, legal groups and law enforcement to speak in support of specific legislation. Crime Commission member Del. Charniele Herring, D-46th, pointed to “red flag” laws as a possible point of consensus between the parties. 

“I hope that we as a commission will look at the possibility of the ‘red flag’ law as I see in common from both sides of the debate,” Herring said. 

Several Republicans have now said they support “red flag” legislation introduced by Rep. Jason Miyares, R-82nd, during the special session, including Republican Caucus Chair Del. Tim Hugo, R-40th, who represents parts of Prince William and Fairfax counties. 

Hugo, who has an A-rating from the National Rifle Association, said the Crime Commission’s hearings on the gun bills were vital. 

“We need input from experts in law enforcement and academia, as well as from our constituents. We have to get this right, and after two days of expert and public testimony, I believe we’re on the right track,” Hugo said.

Democratic legislators critical of commission meetings 

Democratic legislators condemned Republicans decision to end the July special session without a vote, calling the delay a failure of leadership by Republicans to address gun violence in Virginia. Many Democrats were still vexed by the GOP’s call for a crime commission study on Tuesday. 

Hala Ayala, D-51st, spoke out against the crime commission’s hearings on the proposed gun legislation in an email. Ayala represents about 60,000 voters in the eastern side of Prince William County. 

“The crime commission meetings are a political stunt led by the same representatives who left their responsibilities at the door during last month's special session on gun violence prevention. Having lost my father to gun violence, I'm determined to work across the aisle to pass common sense solutions such as keeping guns off of school campuses and expanding background checks to keep our communities safe,” Ayala said. 

Ayala is chief co-patron of HB 4011, which would require a person to report the loss or theft of the firearm to any local law-enforcement agency or to State Police within 24 hours.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th, who represents voters in Prince William, Fairfax and Stafford counties, is co-sponsoring a “red flag” bill, SB 4012, which would allow law enforcement officers to apply for an emergency substantial risk order to prohibit a person who poses a substantial risk of injury to himself or others from purchasing, possessing, or transporting a firearm. 

“The referral of these bills to the Crime Commission is simply a delay tactic and show hearing to present a facade of activity instead of taking action,” Surovell said. “Many of these bills have been introduced, pending, and presented to General Assembly Committees for over a decade, are supported by 60-90% of Virginians and killed because the legislators in the majority fear the National Rifle Association.”

Reach Daniel Berti at dberti@fauquier.com

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