Five of these were hard-fought bills to strengthen our commonwealth’s gun laws.
Physical distancing required a bill signing with less pomp and public visibility than such a momentous occasion would normally demand. But it did not change that this is a historic moment for our commonwealth, one made possible by the commitment of advocates who never took no for an answer and by voters who made gun-violence prevention a priority when casting their votes in November last year.
It’s no accident that Northam’s bill signing occurred so close to April 16, 13 years since the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. These new laws are the result of diligent and tireless work by survivors and advocates since that horrific day in 2007.
The mass shooting at Virginia Tech was the deadliest in modern U.S. history and remains the deadliest mass shooting on a college campus. The shooting claimed the lives of 32 people, injured another 17 and left countless families and individuals as members of a group that nobody wants to join but far too many of us do: the community of gun-violence survivors. Though Virginia changed some laws through administrative action in response, the meaningful legislative action sought by many legislators and then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D) did not pass the General Assembly.
Despite this, many Virginians remained clear-eyed about the need for change. And, while there were setbacks, we remained determined and engaged.
Unfortunately, Virginia Tech was not the last mass shooting and certainly not the last gun death in Virginia. More than 10,000 Virginians have lost their lives to gun violence since the Virginia Tech massacre, including in the mass shooting in Virginia Beach last year, which left 12 people dead and four others injured.
Following that shooting, Northam called a special session of the General Assembly to pass meaningful reforms to our gun laws. The General Assembly ended the special session after only 90 minutes, without considering any of the governor’s bills. Yet again, National Rifle Association-backed legislators showed that no amount of tragedy would stop them from putting gun industry profits ahead of our lives.
Voters didn’t forget that when they went to the ballot box last year. Heading into the election, polls found that voters ranked “gun policy” as their No. 1 concern, yielding a historic result: Virginia voters elected a gun-violence-prevention majority to both chambers of the General Assembly.
The voters had spoken and it was time for legislators to answer.
But that answer didn’t come without hurdles. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, typically celebrated by peaceful assemblies and a vigil remembering lives lost to gun violence, local militia and other fringe groups organized a protest at the State Capitol. Their fearmongering claims that the General Assembly was poised to deny Virginians their Second Amendment rights attracted people from across the country with calls of “if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”
Those same voices tried to block meaningful action, but the will of the voters prevailed, thanks to strong leadership from House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax), Northam and newly elected members of the General Assembly as well as those who have been fighting from the minority for years.
These bills are now laws because of their steadfast commitment and Virginia is safer because of their efforts.
These policies expand background checks; limit the number of handgun purchases to one gun per month; update Virginia’s child access prevention law to protect children and teens; require gun owners report lost or stolen firearms within 48 hours; and establish an Extreme Risk Law, sometimes called a “red flag law.”
Gun laws, as with all public health and safety policies, work in concert. The sum total of these laws will help ensure that individuals who should not own guns cannot purchase them and that individuals undergoing times of crisis and who are a proven risk to themselves or others do not possess weapons. They will help reduce incidents when “lost or stolen” guns end up in the hands of those who would misuse them. They will keep our youth safe from unsecured weapons in the home, reducing incidents of family fire. In short, they will help to prevent gun violence in all of its forms and will be felt far beyond Virginia’s borders.
That is progress for all Virginians and progress for our entire country.
Of course, this effort isn’t finished. The General Assembly will reexamine a bill to ban the sale and transfer of assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines in 2021, just as other states have done.
We are still in this fight and though the road may be long, we will prevail — both in Virginia and in many other states.
Indeed, if it can happen in Virginia, it can happen anywhere, and we will stop at nothing to make it so.