In your July 11 editorial, “Guns aren’t the whole problem,” the Alexandria Times states that, when it comes to preventing gun violence, complex mental illness measures are “just as important” and require “far more political courage” to support than the gun violence prevention measures proposed during the special session on gun violence, including universal background checks, bans on assault weapons and extended magazines and reporting requirements for lost and stolen firearms.
This assertion overstates the connection between mental health and gun violence. Worse, while perpetuating false assumptions about mental illness and dangerousness, it furnishes a familiar scapegoat as cover for legislators attempting to justify their inaction on reasonable gun violence prevention measures.
An honest discussion on the issue starts with a few facts:
• One in five Americans experience mental illness, but only 4 percent of violent acts in the United States can be attributed to a person with a serious mental illness. Mass shootings committed by people with a diagnosed serious mental illness ac- count for less than 1 percent of all yearly gun-related homicides. People with serious mental illness are 12 times more likely to be the victim of violence than the overall U.S. population.
• Behavioral risk factors such as alcohol or drug abuse or, according to a Giffords Law Center report, a history of domestic violence, are much stronger indicators of future violence than mental illness.
I do strongly agree with the Times that “we have a significant problem with guns in this country, and laws must change and be enforced” and “Better gun laws are needed.” However, we should stop allowing distractions from the issue of incomplete firearm regulations and address threats comprehensively by implementing universal background checks. This would remove the loophole that allows prohibited persons, such as felons, domestic abusers and, yes, those who have been involuntarily committed due to mental illness to purchase firearms from “private sellers,” often at a gun show, without a background check.
• In at least one-third of documented mass shootings in the United States from 2009 to 2017, the shooter was legally prohibited from possessing firearms, according to everytownresearch.org. In half of those mass shootings, the shooter exhibited warning signs indicating that they posed a danger to themselves or others prior to the shooting.
• On average, there are more than 500 suicides committed with a firearm each year in Virginia.
We should also adopt an Extreme Risk Protection Order law to address suicides or cases where the shooter showed a propensity to commit harm. This would create a legal mechanism for law enforcement and the courts to temporarily separate a person from their firearms when they are found to pose a danger to themselves or others. This would prevent a person from purchasing or possessing firearms for the duration of the order, or until the courts determine the person no longer poses a risk. This allows people in crisis, or victims of domestic violence, a critical life-saving resource: time.
• Upward of 20 percent of handguns involved in a crime are sold as part of a multi-gun purchase. Prior to instituting its “one handgun a month law” in 1993, Virginia was one of the top suppliers of guns used in crimes recovered in the Northeast. After instituting the law, there was a 54 percent reduction in guns used in crimes traced to Virginia. The law was repealed in 2012. Virginia is again the top source for guns used in crimes in D.C., Maryland, New York and West Virginia.
• Lax lost and stolen gun laws make it easier for gun traffickers to funnel guns into the illegal market.
Measures that focus on decreasing the flow of firearms into the hands of criminals make not only us, but our neighbors safer. We should reinstitute the proven one-handgun-a-month law and tighten reporting requirements around lost and stolen guns to remove a loophole that allows guns to slip through the cracks.
The Times asserts that reasonable people can believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an absolute right to own any kind of gun, which imparts unhelpful ambiguity in discussions of the Second Amendment, beyond what is supported by established Supreme Court precedent. The laws proposed in Virginia are far from groundbreaking. Similar measures in other states have been upheld in constitutional challenges.
Virginia is one of only three states that allow a person to be wholly acquitted by reason of insanity. The key issue here is that, although those who are acquitted are still institutionalized, if their symptoms remit, they must be released into the public. I will be introducing legislation during the upcoming legislative session to ensure people like Pankaj Bhasin are not released back into the community.
However, the Times is again missing the forest for the trees. Less than 1 percent of all violent criminals even attempt a “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense, and less than 25 percent of those use it successfully. This is a needed legislative fix, but it would do little to substantially decrease the 1,000 deaths by gun violence every year in Virginia.
The 15 delegates recently elected in red to blue districts are showing a great deal of political courage in supporting gun violence prevention legislation, risking their seats in closely-divided districts in order to implement life-saving reforms. This is especially clear in the stark comparison with their Republican counterparts, who refuse to take up even the discussion of such matters for fear of the NRA or Citizens Defense League.
The Times plays a key role both in informing our community and shaping the dialogue around contentious issues. In this editorial, however, by pivoting away from the pressing issue of gun violence, and attempting to walk the tightrope between competing interests, the Times showed a deficiency of the “political courage” you claim to seek.
The writer is a Democratic member of the Virginia State Senate, representing the 30th district.