Our nation faces a fundamental question in the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. If gun violence is a problem — and U.S. citizens overwhelmingly think that it is — will our leaders act quickly and wisely to reduce gun deaths?
When I was on the Richmond City Council in the 1990s, our city was mired in an epidemic of gun violence and had the second-highest homicide rate in the United States. Later, while I was governor of Virginia, we experienced the horrible mass shooting of students and faculty at Virginia Tech. In the wake of both, we learned that there are concrete ways to reduce gun violence — some that involve guns and some that do not. If our leaders fail to take these important steps on the national level, we dishonor those innocents who have shed blood in too many recent tragedies.
In Richmond, reform was about taking steps to reduce the unusually high gun-carry rate among our citizens. Too many folks were carrying guns as if they were a casual accessory. And when trouble arose, guns would too often be used as the solution, leading to a stubbornly high rate of aggravated assaults and murders in our city. The most successful step we took was implementing Project Exile, a cooperative program that involved federal prosecution and tougher penalties for gun crimes that state courts had previously treated more leniently. The program helped drive down Richmond’s homicide rate by nearly 60 percent within a few years and was celebrated by groups on both sides of the debate (including the National Rifle Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence). While federal prosecution and incarceration aren’t cheap, the program’s success prompted many communities to enact similar initiatives.
The shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 revealed glaring weaknesses in campus security protocols at colleges and universities, in mental health standards and in the system for background checks before gun purchases. I vividly recall the pressure immediately after the shootings to focus only on guns — whether it was for limiting gun ownership or for allowing students and faculty to carry guns on campus.
In addition to convening a multidisciplinary panel, I worked with then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell to immediately improve our background-check system. I issued an executive order ensuring that those legally declared mentally ill and dangerous would be entered into a national database and barred from purchasing weapons. We also changed standards for mental-health treatment and increased funding for community services while improving campus security and efforts to assist college students suffering from mental stress.
I was disappointed to see the Virginia legislature balk, largely under pressure from the NRA, at efforts to close the gun-show loophole that allows anyone — felons, potential terrorists, domestic abusers — to buy weapons without any background check. That loophole still exists. But I’m proud that the other steps have helped improve public safety in Virginia and make campuses safer.
Our commonwealth learned through tragedy that there are strategies that work. Those who say it’s only about gun limitations should know that Virginia’s experience has shown the importance of enhanced criminal penalties, greater access to mental-health services and campus security protocols.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll demonstrated an interesting point that might seem contradictory at first blush. Two-thirds of Virginians are opposed to arming teachers but, by the same margin, they support the presence of some armed security in our schools. Teachers have enough to do without the additional grave responsibility of being armed security guards. But we accept armed security in many areas of civic life, and our children deserve protection from those who would do them harm. This won’t be cheap, and many proposing this solution are among the loudest in demanding that government spending be cut. But it should not be dismissed out of hand.
And to those who oppose any examination of gun policy, our experience in fixing the background-check system shows that sensible gun limitations work to keep guns out of dangerous hands. The gun owners I know also understand that citizens don’t need combat weapons or super-size magazines to hunt or provide for self-defense. Although gun manufacturers, and the groups that do their bidding, have proven adept at whipping up fear to raise profits and membership dues, the vast majority of the public — including gun owners — sees past their self-interested rhetoric and understands that the Second Amendment can coexist with reasonable rules about gun use.
As we await recommendations from Vice President Biden’s task force, my sense is that Americans are ready to support the concrete steps needed to sharply reduce the chance that there will be another Newtown or Virginia Tech. The question for our elected leaders is whether we’re up to our responsibilities.
Tim Kaine is a U.S. senator from Virginia. He was governor of Virginia from 2006 to 2010 and chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2009 to 2011. This op-ed by Kaine ran in the Washington Post on Jan. 15, 2013.