This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
While public attention has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic many missed the epidemic surge in gun violence that has been occurring in this country. In the last month there have been 45 mass shootings in the United States, and that is just counting incidents in which mass shootings are defined as four or more people who are shot, wounded, or killed. By that definition there have been 147 mass shootings already in 2021 compared with 600 in all of 2020 and 417 in 2019. We are on course to set another record for mass carnage involving guns.
Surprised that the numbers on gun violence are so high? Our attention has been transfixed on the COVID crisis that forced some news stories to the back pages, and unfortunately the number of mass murders is becoming so common place that they do not receive the attention they once did. And for every news story on the front page about another mass murder there are dozens of stories buried in later pages of shootings of one, two, or three people including shootings in our community of Reston. I share the concern of many that we are becoming immune to the bad news for it happens so frequently. We cannot let these mass shootings become the norm!
If you were wondering why flags were flown at half-mast in Virginia last Friday, it was to remember the 32 people who were murdered and the 17 wounded at Virginia Tech in 2007. At the time it set a record for the number of persons killed in a mass shooting. It has since been eclipsed by shootings in Las Vegas and Orlando. Sandy Hook had almost as many victims, but we need to remember that they were little children in an elementary school. Eight of the shootings with the highest number of casualties happened within the past ten years.
I term the problem we have with gun violence an epidemic in that it is a problem unique to us among the developed and wealthy countries of the world as opposed to a pandemic that might exist more widely. According to a study by the United Nations, there are 29.7 homicides by firearms per one million people in the United States compared to 1.4 in Australia, 1.9 in Germany, and 5.1 in Canada.
One reason for the number of deaths by guns in the United States is their availability. The United States has more guns than people: 120.5 per 100 people. In comparison, the ratio of guns to people in Canada is 34.7 per 100, France and Germany are both 19.6, and Iraq is 19.4.
It is way past time to take action to end this epidemic. The Virginia General Assembly this year and last passed 20 different common-sense gun safety bills including my bill to require universal background checks for gun transfers that the Governor signed into law. Many of the features of these laws have been incorporated into a bill introduced in the United States Senate by Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. It comes as close as anything I have seen that will help end this epidemic. Join me in encouraging the Congress to pass it.
For the second week in a row my column opens with a reference to sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg who spoke to the United Nations Climate Action Summit last week after having sailed across the Atlantic on a zero-emissions sailboat. Her message was hard hitting. As she had said to a Congressional committee, it was not necessary that she speak for a long period of time for the scientists had already spoken in the numerous reports on climate change that had been written. As a leader who had inspired weekly sit-ins outside the Swedish Parliament resulting in a growing movement of youth climate activists holding their own protests in more than 100 cities worldwide her message was clear to the world leaders: “We will be watching you…How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight!”
Gun violence is an issue about which young people have become increasingly concerned as well. A student who was at the high school in Parkland, Florida, when there was the mass shooting there has been quoted in the Washington Post as saying that “You see these shootings on TV every day and very little happening around it. It’s painful to watch. And I think it’s been really hard for me and many other students and people that we work with to find hope in this time.” Once again, the young people are watching.
Students from the high school in Parkland have formed an organization called March for Our Lives whose very name indicates the seriousness with which they are approaching the issue of gun violence. They have more than 100 chapters nationwide. Their proposed plan to combat gun violence, “A Peace Plan for a Safer America,” goes well beyond the limited measures being debated in the adult world. Their plan creates a national licensing program with a gun registry, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, a waiting period for gun purchases, and a mandatory buy-back of assault weapons. Their program may seem extreme to many, but it deserves careful attention for it is written by young people who have the experience of having survived a mass shooting where their friends around them did not survive. Once again, we can expect that these young people and others will be watching what we adults do about this issue if indeed anything is done.
Many years ago I worked in a manufacturing plant in the Shenandoah Valley with a man who as a devout member of the Brethren Church. He would regularly remind me that we should live our lives as though someone is watching us for we could be sure that someone is watching us and observing our ethics, honesty and sincerity. We may be able to talk a good game, but those observing our behavior can learn more about us than we may care for them to know. In the political world these days there is way too much talk and too little action on critical life and death issues. Young people are watching and are calling us out!
Last week while Democrats in the North Carolina House of Representatives were attending a 9/11 remembrance service, Republicans called a surprise vote to overturn the Democratic governor’s veto of the state budget. While Democrats and media were told that there would be no voting during the morning session, Democrats’ attendance at the vigil allowed Republicans to get the three-fifths vote needed to over-ride the veto.
Reaction to the maneuver has been harsh. The Charlotte Observer in an editorial said that “the verdict is now plain. North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders–not actually leaders but connivers–are beyond shame.” The paper described what happened as a “stunning display of contempt for democracy…but this isn’t a case simply of hardball politics and sly legislative maneuvering. This is a case of breaking faith with the people…” The Senate must concur on the over-ride before it becomes effective.
Before Virginians get too smug about what happened in North Carolina we must remember what happened in the Virginia General Assembly about a month ago. With the continuing string of mass murders in the country–beginning about the time of the massacre at Virginia Tech that for a while was the largest ever and continuing through a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building–Governor Ralph Northam called a special session of the General Assembly to consider several bills intended to reduce gun violence. The special session convened on July 9 to take up bills related to gun violence but without notice to Democrats or media the Republican majority adjourned 90 minutes later without taking up any of the bills and with a return date scheduled after the elections.
There were no bills among those introduced to respond to gun violence that would have confiscated guns or altered the Second Amendment. They were common-sense bills that according to all public opinion polls I have seen are supported by more than 80 percent and some by more than 90 percent of the public. The experience in Virginia can be described by the same terms of that in North Carolina: contempt for Democracy, a travesty of the process, legislative deceit. You may have seen news reports that the Republican floor leader in the Virginia House received a $200,000 campaign contribution from the NRA several weeks later.
Partisan control of the Virginia House and Senate are on the line this November 5 as all 140 seats are on the ballot. There are numerous critically important issues on the ballot that it would take several columns to enumerate. I do want to add one that gets too little discussion and that is legislative reform. Such reform includes independent drawing of legislative district lines, or getting rid of gerrymandering, that allows the abuses of legislative power in North Carolina and Virginia that are discussed here. As the Charlotte Observer said of the situation in North Carolina, “It was an illegitimate majority acting in an unethical way.”
What happened in both states demonstrates once again that the speakership be defined not as the head of the majority party but as an impartial and fair leader. In both instances the speakers of their respective houses should have stopped these episodes of legislating by skulduggery.