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Will We Fix Gun Laws or Let the Carnage Continue?
By Tim Kaine

I spent last Friday morning meeting constituents in Virginia Beach and the evening mourning the death of 12 people shot dead at the city’s municipal complex. Laquita Brown, Keith Cox, Tara Gallagher, Mary Louise Gayle, Alex Gusev, Joshua Hardy, Missy Langer, Richard Nettleton, Katherine Nixon, Christopher Rapp, Bert Snelling, and Bobby Williams should not have died. Their deaths have robbed Virginia Beach of neighbors who served the community and their loved ones of countless future memories. Devastated, distraught, confused, angry, afraid: the adjectives a person, community, state, or even entire nation feels after a mass shooting could fill a large dictionary on their own.

I wish I didn’t have prior experience with this, but I do. When I was governor of Virginia in 2007, a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. Like the 12 Virginia Beach victims, these 32 people had friends, families, accomplishments, and aspirations, all cut short in a matter of minutes. The emotional weight of that day was overwhelming. Parents learned they would never hold their children again. A Holocaust survivor sacrificed himself so his students could escape. Students, faculty, and staff wondered whether they would ever again feel safe on campus.

Virginia Tech spurred important change

We turned our pain into action then. Despite a judge previously finding the gunman mentally ill and in need of treatment, he was still able to purchase the guns he used in the attack because the court hadn’t entered its finding into the national background check system. Determined to address this shortfall, I signed an executive order requiring courts to report such involuntary mental health commitments and later cemented this policy into law. No one thought that this one fix would prevent all gun violence, but it was an important change that aimed to stop dangerous people from buying weapons. We tried to do more by closing the gun show loophole that allows someone to buy a gun without a background check, but Republicans blocked our efforts.

In the same way we examined how weaknesses in our laws led to the Virginia Tech tragedy, we should examine which ones led to the Virginia Beach tragedy. Police have already said the gunman used extended magazines in his rampage. Magazines holding more than the standard capacity enable a shooter to fire repeatedly with fewer pauses to reload, giving potential victims less of a chance to escape and allowing the killer more shots until he’s stopped. Despite this clear hazard, Virginia has no legal limit on magazine size.

(Actually, Virginia and other states do have magazine limitations on hunting rifles. It is not humane to animals if hunters use extended magazines. But I guess we care less about weapons used to kill people.)

Earlier this year, a Virginia Senate committee considered a bill to ban the sale of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds; Republicans defeated it. In recent Congresses, I’ve cosponsored similar bills on the national level; Republicans refuse to bring them up for a vote. We can’t say for certain how Friday might have been different had magazine limits passed and gone into effect in time, but it is entirely plausible that, had the shooter been limited to smaller magazines, he would have fired fewer rounds and some of those victims might still be alive.

We also know of reforms that could have prevented other tragedies. Despite being prohibited from buying a gun, the Charleston church shooter purchased the weapon he used to murder nine people in 2015 because a legal loophole allowed the seller to complete the sale before the background check was finished. (Twenty-two percent of guns are obtained without a background check in the U.S.) The House passed bills to close this "Charleston loophole” and the gun show loophole back in February, but Republican leadership refuses to let the Senate consider them.

Tragedy is chance to improve gun laws

With all due credit, the Trump administration did the right thing by recently banning bump stocks, the rifle attachment used when a gunman killed 58 people in Las Vegas in 2017. That was a good step, and I hope the president and congressional Republicans will work with us on banning high-capacity magazines and closing the background check loopholes. We should also acknowledge that nearly twothirds of gun deaths are suicides and strengthen the background check system to stop suicidal individuals from buying a gun.

We should pass a bill in Congress to encourage state, local, and tribal governments to adopt extreme risk protection orders that would remove firearms from individuals who exhibit signs of a mental health crisis. We should wake up to the fact that over a million American women have been shot by an intimate partner and pass laws that prevent domestic abusers from keeping a gun.

The bottom line is this — after each tragedy, we have the opportunity to learn and improve. And Americans, even those who own guns, strongly support many of the commonsense measures I mention here. The question is whether we will continue to offer platitudes but refuse to act to protect our communities.

After a high-profile shooting, we mourn the victims and ask questions about the motivations of perpetrators. But we should also look in the mirror and ask something about ourselves. Will we continue to be bystanders, allowing carnage to occur all around us, taking no action to stop it? Or will we muster the backbone to improve our laws?

Sen. Tim Kaine, DVirginia, was governor of Virginia from 2006 to 2010. Follow him on Twitter: @timkaine.

A version of this op-ed was orginially published in The USA Today.

 





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