Democratic Sen. Creigh Deeds to float an assault weapon ban to reduce gun violence; Republicans continue to talk about mental health.

Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO

Following the back-to-back mass shootings at the University of Virginia and a Chesapeake Walmart, Republicans and Democrats are touting proposals to help prevent future tragedies – again.

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has proposed dedicating $230 million in funding for mental health treatment and facilities. And a leading, rural Democrat now plans to renew an effort for a limited assault weapon ban.

In an interview with the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism, Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, said he intends to file legislation to ban new assault weapons and launch a gun buy-back program. 

“The reality is nobody needs an assault weapon,” Deeds said. “If you try to protect yourself in an apartment or in even in a house with a weapon like that, you’re as likely to shoot somebody you care as you are to shoot an intruder.”

Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath
Photo by Deeds staff 

Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath. 

Virginia’s political climate may be unfavorable to gun control measures, but pressure is on for lawmakers to do something to quell the gun violence epidemic. 

In mid-November, three members of the University of Virginia football team were shot and killed after a field trip to Washington, D.C. Two other students were wounded. Nine days later at a Chesapeake Walmart, an overnight manager stormed into the breakroom with a handgun and shot six co-workers dead before taking his own life.

Overall gun violence rates in Virginia have also risen. Emergency room visits for gun-related injuries increased by 72 percent between 2018 and 2019. Black patients are most burdened by gun violence, with a rate of emergency room visits for gun-related injuries that is nearly three times that of whites.

Democrats had failed to pass legislation proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam in 2020 that would have banned the sale of many assault-style weapons. The effort was stymied by four of the party’s own senators, including Deeds, who were concerned the bill too broadly classified weapons that would be banned. 

Dissenting Democrats provided the Republican Senate minority enough votes to table the bill, with Democrats calling for further study of the initiative. Deeds said his new bill would more narrowly define assault-style weapons, and that guns manufactured before the effective date of the legislation, if passed, would be exempt from the ban on sale and transfer. 

He proposes a buy-back program for assault-style weapons grandfathered by the legislation. And an age restriction of 21 and older would be placed on possessing an assault-style weapon produced before or after the active date of the legislation. 

The legislation is “aimed at reducing firearms that are flowing onto the streets,” without violating the right to self-defense, Deeds said.

But many activist gun owners regarded previous attempts at a ban as a move to seize commonly used firearms from law-abiding citizens. It’s unclear how top Republicans regard Deed’s proposal; attempts by VCIJ to reach Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, went unanswered last week. 

In 2023, getting the ban through the Republican dominated House is unlikely, said Bob Holsworth, a long-time analyst of Virginia politics. Democrats should have seized the advantage of controlling both chambers and the governor’s office, he said. 

“That was a time when they could have gotten something done and they didn’t,” Holsworth said. “The environment for the passage of this bill was very different in 2020 than it is for 2023; if the Democrats had sat down and ironed out their disagreements, it would have passed and been signed by the governor.” 

Following the murder of three University of Virginia football players by a fellow student, UVA students hoist a banner over the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity on Monday evening.
Photo by Christopher Tyree 

Following the murder of three University of Virginia football players by a fellow student, UVA students hoist a banner over the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in November.

As lawmakers ready themselves for the General Assembly session in January, with the public memory of two mass shootings still fresh, the divide between Democrats and Republicans on how to handle gun violence seems impassably wide. Deeds and other Democrats seek to put limitations on obtaining and carrying firearms, particularly assault weapons, in addition to increasing mental health funding. Republicans counter that the problem isn’t guns; it’s people and are focused on mental health as a cause for gun violence.

This month, in response to the mass shootings, Youngkin proposed dedicating $230 million to fill gaps in Virginia’s overburdened mental and behavioral healthcare system. Funding would go toward increasing the number of mobile crisis units and crisis receiving and stabilization centers. The proposal would also expand tele-behavioral health services in public schools and colleges, among other initiatives. Virginia’s shrinking workforce in the mental health field led to the temporary closure of five of the state’s eight mental health hospitals to new admissions in 2021.

“The current behavioral health system is being overwhelmed and is failing to meet the needs of Virginians in crisis, with an outdated model of care that relies too heavily on hospitals,” the Youngkin administration said in a release.

Deeds, who became arguably the biggest champion in Virginia politics for mental health reform after he was stabbed by his son in 2013, who then committed suicide, agrees that Youngkin’s measures are desperately needed. But linking gun violence to mental health issues risks re-stigmatizing people with mental illness and ignores the role gun control could play in deterring shootings, Deeds said.

“We need to keep remedies for mental health issues at the front of our minds always …  but that’s no substitute for the really hard work we need to do to try to reduce the flow of weapons into the hands of people who intend to do bad things,” Deeds said. 

Others in Deed’s party take a different approach to addressing the cause of gun violence. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, advocate for establishing a Center for Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention at the Department of Criminal Justice Services. The center would research root causes for gun violence and assist in implementing evidence-based solutions.

“I’m all for preventing the sale of ghost (untraceable and privately assembled) guns [and] banning assault rifles, but we have to look at individual incidents,” Price said. She added that neither of the bans would have prevented the UVA and Walmart shootings. “We have to look at it comprehensively…to get right fit solutions.” 

Thousands of gun ownership enthusiasts and armed militia members decended on the Virginia State Capitol in January 2020 to advocate for the unrestricted right to carry guns.
Photo by Anthony Crider via Flickr creative commons 

Gun advocates during a gun rights rally in Richmond in 2020.

Gun rights advocates say gun control puts people at risk of becoming victims of crime because it prevents law-abiding citizens from carrying firearms for protection, said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League 

“Let people protect themselves, get rid of gun free zones,” Van Cleave said. “There are not police around all of the time; you’re going to end up being your own first responder in an emergency.”

Holding similar views, Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, has filed draft legislation ahead of this year’s session that would prohibit localities from banning the possession of firearms on government property.

Though gun ownership has increased as more states pass ‘right-to-carry' laws, research has not found a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the prevalence of guns and the U.S. crime rate. But guns do make crimes more violent and potentially deadly, according to research from the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard.  

Democrats most likely won’t have the same banner year as 2020, when Northam signed several gun control bills into law. And in the 2022 budget, both Democrats and Republicans received less funding than hoped for criminal justice initiatives. As Democrats and Republicans continue to draw ideological lines, it’s unclear how much either party will get done on gun violence this session.

“The reality is that people are so tribal about this issue that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground; people are either pro-second amendment or pro-gun control,” Deeds said. “We need to find a place where we can talk to each other and come up with solutions, and I don’t know if such a place exists anymore.”