The Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg was still on lockdown. A gunman had killed 32 students and teachers before turning the weapon on himself. Kaine, sleepless, returned to Virginia on the next flight out, traveling from hospital to hospital to visit the wounded once he arrived.
“Every April, I always think about this,” Kaine (D-Va.), now a U.S. senator, said Thursday. “Clearly, no if, ands or buts, one of the worst days of my life.”
Now, on the eve of the anniversary of the shooting, he and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) reintroduced the Virginia Plan to Reduce Gun Violence Act, modeled after historic gun-control bills passed on the state level last year in Richmond.
The Senate bill, which follows a recent spate of high-profile mass shootings, would require universal background checks, limit handgun purchases to one a month, and allow guns to be temporarily confiscated from people shown to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.
It would also close the so-called boyfriend loophole to prevent abusive unmarried partners from possessing firearms, create penalties for people who “recklessly” leave loaded guns unsecured in the presence of children, and require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms within 48 hours.
Kaine and Warner introduced the same package last year, although it did not make any headway with Republicans in control of the Senate and President Donald Trump in the White House.
Virginia “has gone from the state where, well, the NRA is headquartered there — Virginia will never do anything — to a state that has now taken meaningful steps to keep people safe,” Kaine said. “I have this attitude that I tell my colleagues — if we can do it in Virginia, we can do it in Congress. And I really believe that.”
The Virginia legislature passed its measures in the wake of the 2019 Virginia Beach shooting inside a municipal building that left 12 people dead.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) responded to the massacre by asking lawmakers to prioritize gun control and listing a number of restrictions he wanted to see become law. After other mass shootings, such calls have largely gone unheeded.
But voters gave Democrats the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly that fall, including many candidates who flipped seats by campaigning on gun control. The legislature followed through, passing seven of Northam’s eight priorities months later.
The measures invited sizable opposition from gun rights advocates, thousands of whom came to Richmond to protest. Even on the federal level, Trump and a slew of Virginia congressional candidates frequently campaigned against the state’s gun-control laws at rallies, pointing to them as a harbinger of what Democrats could do nationally.
All of which serves as a precursor to the type of resistance Kaine and Warner are likely to encounter from Senate Republicans should the Virginia Plan make any gains. Kaine, acknowledging the difficulty of pushing through the full plan, said he anticipates the closely divided Senate will take up a single measure first, such as a separate universal background check bill that has already passed the House.
But Kaine said he also believes it was a failure in the background check system that enabled the Virginia Tech shooter to get a gun, even though he had mental health issues and such a purchase should have been prohibited.
For years, he kept in touch with the families of the victims, and with the wounded he met in the hospitals. In 2013, when the Senate came close to passing a universal background check law after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, several Virginia Tech families looked on from the gallery. They sat with the Sandy Hook families and watched as the bill failed.
“You don’t want to fall short on something you care about, but you definitely don’t want to fall short when all of these people who have all of this significant scar tissue because of these traumas are here rooting you on,” Kaine said. “For me, this is unfinished business in my public life.”