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Bottom of the barrel / February 28, 2018
“Regardless of what laws we pass, until the evil in men’s hearts change, it’s not going to solve the problem,” said Del. Tommy Wright in response to the mass slaughter of innocents by someone with a gun.

Which slaughter? In this instance, Wright was talking about the 2016 Las Vegas shooting that left 58 concertgoers dead at an outdoors country music festival. The occasion for Wright’s comments was a January vote by the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee — which Wright chairs — to kill a proposed statewide ban on bump stocks, the device the Las Vegas assailant used to turn more than a dozen semi-automatic rifles into even more lethal instruments of death. Nope, laws won’t and don’t make a difference, says Wright, whose job consists of making laws. Of course, our delegate has no way of chasing evil from the hearts of men either, which logically means — not that we didn’t already know — that Wright’s “service” in Richmond is basically just a big waste of time.

That was then, this is now, and Wright and fellow gun right absolutists in Richmond haven’t changed their tune one bit, not even after the latest fatal shootings of 17 students and teachers at a Parkland, Fla. high school two weeks ago. Unlike in Las Vegas, where the killer evinced no advance signs of mental instability or ill intent, this time the shooter, an expelled 19-year-old student, had trouble written all over him. Because he lives in an affluent Florida community, the teen — a classic misfit loner — was the subject of multiple interventions to turn his life around. Yet none of these efforts took, despite the dedicated work of professionals in the field. Remember this the next time lawmakers tell you that the answer to mass shootings is to improve “mental health.”

If only. Don’t get me wrong, improving our system of mental health care should be a priority of government at all levels. So should reasonable measures to improve school security. But the thing that binds all of our recent massacres together in a patchwork of random and senseless tragedy — at school yards, college campuses, concerts, movie theaters, churches and various other public spaces — is the ease with which murderers have obtained guns designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. What we can do to prevent this slaughter while upholding Second Amendment rights is a subject for legitimate debate. What’s not legitimate is acting as though unfettered access to weapons of war isn’t the big problem.

After the Florida shooting, Wright once again found himself in the newspapers, this time in a Washington Post article last week on Richmond’s partisan impasse on gun safety legislation. The Post piece took note of bills that have come up in the General Assembly and died in Wright’s subcommittee. (The proposed ban on bump stocks went down to defeat by a 4-2 vote.) As one would expect, Wright cited “the constitutional right to defend yourself and your family” — which he told the Post is “something that’s guaranteed” — in implying there’s nothing the legislature can do to address the problem of gun violence. Hey, I know it’s a big ask to expect our lawmakers to know anything about the law, but the Constitutional right to bear arms is not absolute. Reasonable gun safety measures are achievable. But don’t take my word for it. Look instead to pro-gun conservatives such as late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, nobody’s idea of a bleeding-heart liberal.

Writing in District of Columbia v. Heller, a 2008 Supreme Court decision that overturned a handgun ban in the nation’s capital, Scalia wrote that, “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited” and “not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.

“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” Scalia wrote in his opinion. “We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms …. We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’”

So there you have it — Justice Scalia, champion of conservative jurisprudence, acknowledging that the state has the authority to “[forbid] the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings” and to impose “conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms” and to prohibit “the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’” There is solid basis for believing the Supreme Court misinterpreted the scope of the Second Amendment in Heller, but even this pro-gun ruling leaves considerable room for gun safety measures that — at a minimum — would deny weapons of war to people motivated by their internal demons to kill others. Tommy Wright and his NRA-supported ilk suggest otherwise. Don’t believe them.

The irony of Scalia’s opinion is that it embodies something we know to be true about the NRA: while the organization presents itself as an unyielding political force, many of its members are open to reasonable gun ownership restrictions and steps to improve gun safety. (Look no further than the NRA’s Eddie Eagle program, which teaches the tenets of responsible gun use to youngsters). Absolutist views on the Second Amendment lie outside the mainstream of American life, they were even alien to the late Justice Scalia, but sadly, such notions have not yet been sidelined in the legislative sphere. The key word here is “yet”; after the massacre at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the NRA and its political bagmen are living on borrowed time — if only because a younger generation raised with fear and loathing of guns is replacing a Republican-dominated older cohort that refuses to get serious about the issue.

This is what I find astounding about our General Assembly delegation here in rural Virginia. On practically any issue, not only guns, their default position is to say “no” to the rest of the state and attempt to bollix up the works. Tommy Wright is an otherwise unexceptional Republican delegate who heads a small, six-person House subcommittee that has put a lid on gun bills that are overwhelmingly supported by Virginia voters. Honestly, how long do our local Republican lawmakers expect this state of affairs to continue? Forever? How about for two more years? The NRA went all-out in the 2017 election to defeat Democrats running for statewide office (and I have a stack of NRA-funded mailers for Ed Gillispie to prove it) only to get clobbered — not only in the race for governor, but for lieutenant governor, attorney general, and in a shockingly high number of House of Delegates races. Two more flips in the House of Delegates, where Republicans hold a 51-49 majority, and Tommy Wright will be about as relevant as the Maytag repairman. Put this together with one more flip in the State Senate (20-19, GOP) and Republicans will be almost completely irrelevant in Richmond.

You’d think in the face of this impending electoral oblivion, conservative GOP lawmakers would moderate their positions (and on some issues, they have) but guns are the clear exception. Apparently they don’t realize that some wedge issues come in the shape of a dagger.

Republicans can try to confuse and distract on the topic of guns all they want — look no further than their ridiculous rhetoric about arming teachers, a dead-before-arrival plan if ever there was one — but patience among voters for the gun-soaked politics embodied by the likes of Tommy Wright is wearing thin. Two more years, a handful of seats, and rural Virginia’s representatives in the legislature may well lose any ability to shape the gun debate in ways that could reflect any rural priorities. Perhaps the Magtag repairman is the wrong choice of metaphor here. How about we go with kamikaze fighters instead?

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