Virginia’s latest high-profile fatal shooting occurred on Thanksgiving, when Richmond fire Lt. Ashley Nicole Berry, a 33-year-old mother of three, was killed while trying to shield her 5-year-old son from gunfire.
Police say the intended target was not Berry but rather an apartment next to the Hopewell, Va., home she and her boy were visiting for the holiday. They were leaving when the shots rang out, making them two more victims caught in the crossfire of gun violence, a scourge of our time.
In the time since Virginia’s Thanksgiving Day shooting, shootings with multiple victims have made headlines, including two on Navy bases at Pearl Harbor and in Pensacola, Florida.
Does the answer to such violence lie in reshaping gun laws? That’s the question at the heart of debate currently roiling Virginia as Democrats prepare to take control of the state government for the first time in more than two decades. Campaigning this past fall, Democrats promised they’d pass “commonsense gun control measures” if voters gave them the majority in the General Assembly.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has been discussing a handful of bills since the May 31 Virginia Beach mass shooting: mandating universal background checks for gun purchases; allowing judges to remove weapons from those deemed dangerous to themselves or others and reinstating Virginia’s previous one-handgun-a-month rule – all measures that had been defeated in previous years by a handful of GOP lawmakers in legislative subcommittees.
But in an example of our state’s dysfunction in dealing with gun violence, a special session on gun safety in July was called off after just 90 minutes, costing taxpayers about $45,000 while accomplishing nothing.
Now, our state is dealing with yet another symptom of governing dysfunction: the rise of the “Second Amendment sanctuary” movement. So far, about 70 Virginia localities have passed varying resolutions, most of which declare themselves “sanctuaries” from local enforcement of whatever new gun regulations are approved in Richmond.
Already, Attorney General Mark Herring (D) has declared the “Second Amendment sanctuary” declarations functionally meaningless. They are merely statements of opposition by some residents to new gun regulations but in no way prevent a “sanctuary” county’s residents from having to comply with the law.
On Monday, Northam told reporters he won’t back any gun regulations deemed unconstitutional.
“I hear people out there saying that they don’t want law enforcement to enforce unconstitutional laws. Well we’re not going to propose or pass any unconstitutional laws,” he said. “So that’s something we should all agree on.”
The governor’s suggestion – that there must be “something we all agree on” – is perhaps Virginia’s greatest challenge. That’s why the gun-rights resolution the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors will consider this week is deserving of positive attention. Unlike most approved around the state, Fauquier’s resolution skips the word “sanctuary” altogether – suggesting the county will make no attempt to pressure local law enforcement to not enforce the law – and instead offers a positive contribution to the conversation.
As is their proper role, the Fauquier supervisors are using the resolution to ask state legislators to pursue new laws they believe will make the county safer -- stiffer penalties for adults who allow children unsafe access to guns, waiving the sales tax on gun safes and locks and providing more state funding for mental health services.
By comparison, the resolution initially proposed by the Prince William Board of Supervisors is disappointing. The measure makes the empty promise of declaring the county a “Second Amendment sanctuary” while offering no input on proposed gun-safety bills. Given the board already passed a 2020 legislative agenda that makes no mention of gun regulations, the resolution is also political theater, amounting to little more than a spectacle forced by outgoing board Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, a political provocateur who once auctioned off an AR-15 as a campaign stunt.
At Tuesday's meeting, the Prince William board passed a more tempered resolution declaring the Prince William a "constitutional county." That's fine, but one has to question the effect. Hasn't the county always followed the state and U.S. constitutions?
If the sanctuary resolution had passed, incoming Chair-elect Ann Wheeler (D) promised to repeal it soon after the new Democratic-majority board takes office in January. It's not clear what Wheeler and the new board will do now. There would seem little need to repeal a "constitutional county" resolution.
The debate about gun violence and proposed gun regulations will follow Virginia into the new year. It’s past time we put the political grandstanding behind us and work in good faith toward bipartisan solutions.