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Gridlocked on guns, Virginia lawmakers debate other ways to address violence

Person wearing mask speaks
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who proposed a new center for researching strategies to prevent gun violence, speaks at a 2022 committee meeting. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia politicians responded to Tuesday’s school shooting in Texas with well-worn condolences, prayers and in some cases, renewed calls to restrict access to guns.

The state’s top Republicans — Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares —  all offered prayers on Twitter. Youngkin’s spokesperson, Macaulay Porter, said Youngkin would work to “enhance school safety, support law enforcement, and address mental health” but wouldn’t say if he supported new gun restrictions.

Democrats, meanwhile, called on Earle-Sears to cancel plans to give the keynote speech at a National Rifle Association event in Texas on Friday; her spokesperson did not respond to a request to comment from VPM News.

Lori Haas, a gun control advocate whose daughter was shot and injured in the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, said parents of the Uvalde victims were experiencing pain “worse than anyone can imagine.” She called on lawmakers to ban semi-automatic, assault style firearms — an initiative that failed even when Democrats held total power in Richmond.

“I hope there's some compassion sparked in someone in that General Assembly building,” said Haas, who serves as Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

In the short term, gun control advocates face long odds. Efforts to revisit the commonwealth’s firearm laws were quickly cast aside this year in Virginia’s divided legislature. But lawmakers are still debating other measures to address a surge in homicides in Virginia.

The proposals include creating a new Virginia Center for Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention that would serve as a hub for collecting and disseminating data, research and strategies on preventing gun violence. Three Senate Republicans voted for the bill from Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) to create the center, which she said would offer grants tailored to local needs.

“What is happening in Richmond may be very different from what's happening in Roanoke or Norfolk, and we can't have a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach,” McClellan said in an interview.

In the GOP-controlled House of Delegates, Republicans replaced McClellan’s bill with a proposal more narrowly focused on gang violence. The bill from Del. Tony Wilt (R-Rockingham), which is modeled after an intervention called Operation Ceasefire, would offer state funds to law enforcement agencies, local governments, nonprofits and other organizations working to stem group violent crime. Seven House Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the bill.

Person reads into microphone
Del. Tony Wilt speaks from the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates. Wilt sponsored legislation this year to offer grants to organizations that work to stem group violent crime. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The two bills are currently tied up in negotiations over the state budget. Senate Democrats set aside $24.7 million for McClellan’s bill in their draft budget, while House Republicans designated $5 million for Wilt’s plan. Reconciling the two numbers and two programs falls to a small group of lawmakers whose negotiations have remained a closely guarded secret. Lawmakers are set to vote on a negotiated budget agreement on June 1.

Wilt’s original bill called for a much more expansive program: the creation of a new violence prevention board, a new division within the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services and regular reports to the General Assembly. Wilt didn’t respond to a request for an interview, but he said in February that his slimmed-down approach would be faster and more efficient.

“The money is going to go directly to our communities,” Wilt said in a floor speech. “It's not going to go into forming boards and commissions and all those things.”

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) challenged the idea that Wilt made the changes for the sake of speed, noting that DCJS already opened applications for gun violence intervention grants, including Operation Ceasefire. An official with DCJS said on Wednesday the department received 35 grant applications.

“There's no reason to narrow this bill for the sake of speed,” Simon said in a February floor speech. “It's about limiting the options to just those options that rely heavily on law enforcement.”

McClellan also said it would be a mistake to focus heavily on gang violence, given that the majority of firearm deaths are suicides.

Either plan would eventually come before Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The former CEO has already voiced support for Wilt’s bill, saying that it helps “law enforcement heroes by giving them the tools to work with community leaders to help those most affected by violence.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the type of firearm Lori Haas has proposed banning.