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Unknowns and knowns / December 11, 2019
A 17-year-old got his hands on a gun this weekend, other young people are dead as a result, and the rest of us are left to mourn and wonder why.

Why — it’s always the most elusive question in episodes such as these. Why did some kid allegedly murder two brothers, ages 20 and 17, in cold blood? What was the motive? As so often happens after violent, senseless deaths, we can only speculate about what may have driven the suspect to take the lives of others and throw his own life away in the process.

It’s generally a good idea to avoid jumping to conclusions in a crime where so much information is yet to be revealed. But one conclusion can safely be made: this sort of thing has happened before, and it will happen again.
And shame on the rest of us if we don’t make some effort to save lives that otherwise may be lost in the future.

The crime described above, of course, happened this Saturday in Centerville, when a 17-year-old male allegedly pulled up to a vape shop in front of WalMart and gunned down two brothers on the sidewalk after dark. The motivations of the suspect, who has not been identified due to his juvenile status, remain a mystery. The two young men who were slain, Tevonte Powell, age 20, and brother Tevin, 17, were beloved by family and friends. Their fate is sadly familiar.

That’s because you can look almost anywhere and see more or less the same thing happening. In Mecklenburg County this summer, a 17-year-old male suspect from Buffalo Junction was arrested for second degree murder after a 20-year-old Clarksville man died of gunshots. (Sound familiar?) That one happened just a few months ago. Let’s not even bring up the court docket in the City of Danville, where the ongoing toll from gun violence is beyond sickening. With so many of these killings, we won’t get a clear sense of the “why” behind the crime until the trials unfold. Until then, we have only one known common denominator to ponder: easily obtainable guns.

Last week, we delved into the public outcry throughout rural Virginia in response to the likelihood of new gun legislation passing in the next session of the General Assembly. On Dec. 2, the Board of Supervisors declared Halifax County a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.” This week, Bedford and Mecklenburg and others followed suit. The list of Second Amendment sanctuary localities keeps growing. As for the resolutions themselves, they are essentially symbolic but not unimportant statements in opposition to proposed new gun laws.

As I wrote last week, the self-proclaimed 2A Sanctuary movement will head to Richmond next month with gale-force winds blowing in its face. The obvious problem — and the catalyst of 2A Sanctuary resolutions around the state — is the political shakeup at the Capital, with Democrats taking control of the House of Delegates and State Senate, to go along with a Democratic governor who has made gun safety laws a core priority of his time in office. That’s a massive political challenge for Virginia’s Second Amendment absolutists. An even more massive problem can be expressed in a single word: democracy.

In an election where gun rights were a top-shelf issue, with two parties espousing diametrically opposed priorities and solutions, Republicans got their heads handed to them by voters — and it requires willful obliviousness to insist otherwise. People are sick of waking up and going to bed bombarded with headlines of mass shootings which occur everywhere in America with alarming frequency. The Town of South Hill recently experienced its own scare with a police lockdown at Park View High School, Park View Middle and South Hill Elementary — all on the suspicion that someone with a rifle wandering around the area posed a threat to schoolchildren. Thankfully, nothing came of the incident, but it’s hard to seriously argue in this day and age that Mecklenburg school officials and law enforcement overreacted. If mass shootings can happen anywhere in America, they sure as heck can happen here.

But pro-gun advocates will protest: New gun laws won’t stop mass shootings. You know what? Nine times out of ten, they’re probably right about this. (Republicans’ preferred response to mass shootings — advocating stronger programs for mental health treatment, notwithstanding their cruel opposition to Medicaid expansion which pays for a huge share of mental health services in our area — is guaranteed to fail 99 times out of a hundred.) America is too awash with guns to offer much hope that a deranged individual with a yen for murder won’t be able to secure the weapon of his choosing. Dialing down the lethality of firearms that hit the market could help, but that’s probably a secondary reform to pursue if the sole aim is to tamp down mass shootings. Red flag laws, which allow a court and law enforcement to take guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous persons, offer a more promising solution. That’s what Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature did (with the signature of the Republican governor) after the deadly high school shooting in Parkland, Fla. nearly two years ago.

None of this is to suggest that more garden-variety measures — beefed up background checks, tighter control over gun transfers, even after-the-fact penalties for gun owners who allow their weapons to fall in the hands of shooters and killers — wouldn’t make a difference. Actually, the U.S. suffers from a deficit of research on which gun measures might work best — again, thanks in large part to Republican efforts to quash research by entities such as the Centers for Disease Control, which have well-established expertise in the study of public safety. One thing we probably can surmise is that while a committed shooter is hard to stop, the same may not be true of a less determined offender.

The power of weak disincentives in discouraging bad behavior should not be underestimated. There is evidence that tighter gun laws lead to fewer gun crimes — states with more stiffer curbs experience fewer shootings, although the evidence is not wholly conclusive, as other factors may separate Rhode Island, say, from Alabama, in this picture. One of the maddening aspects of our national gun debate is the plain fact that most of the laws suggested by gun control advocates are in fact rather weak — a far, far cry from the confiscatory fantasies spun by the most strident voices in the Second Amendment sanctuary movement. No one is coming to take your guns away. If you suddenly experience a bout of delirium and decide to go out and kill someone, having to wait three days for the completion of a background check might just be the thing to snap you out of the madness. We may not know if this will work, but we sure can try.

The ensuing inconvenience for the vast majority of gun owners who are responsible individuals and maintain proper control of their firearms is not nothing, but neither is waiting in line at the DMV. (It will come as no surprise if gun licensing comes up for debate in the legislature in 2020.) Gun owners who are willing to dispense with the inflammatory rhetoric may find that their opinions count for a lot in the debates ahead, as long as everyone can commit to work towards a common goal of reducing gun violence. That means dropping the knee-jerk opposition to all new laws whatsoever, and perhaps even refocusing and extending the historic commitment of organizations such as the National Rifle Association to gun safety and youth gun education. This would also mean renouncing the baleful political orientation of the NRA, a group so corrupted at the national level that it receives massive funding from Russian interests and suffers from rank self-dealing in the executive leadership ranks. Yeah, I know. Good luck convincing the NRA to do a 180-degree turn and join gun safety advocates in developing new legislature. When pigs fly.

It’s largely because of this political stalemate that we haven’t made better progress in keeping guns out of the hands of people who mean to do harm to others. Virginia is about to enter an experimental phase whereby the state tries to do something to stop random shootings and the wanton loss of life. None of it may not work. Then again, it may. If you are heartbroken by the deaths of innocents from the scourge of gun violence, you really owe it to yourself and others to embrace the challenge of finding real solutions rather than falling back on the tired nostrum that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. What happens most of the time is that people armed with guns kill people. If you’re upset by this fact and want to see something happen, then this present moment in Virginia political history is made for you.

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