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Public weighs in on gun bills after mass shooting

(AP) Members of the public and special interest groups made their case Aug. 20 to a Virginia commission studying a broad range of gun safety proposals after a deadly mass shooting in Virginia Beach earlier this year.

The bipartisan Virginia State Crime Commission heard hours of testimony from speakers across the ideological spectrum as part of its work to develop policy recommendations for lawmakers, who are not scheduled to reconvene before a critical November election.

“It is not a problem that is easily fixed. And I appreciate you being here,” said Lori Haas, a gun-control advocate whose daughter was injured in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre when a student fatally shot 32 people. “But can we please not wait any longer to address this problem?”

The panel opened its meeting with presentations from law enforcement officials and staffers from advocacy groups before opening the floor for additional comment.

Some speakers cast bills the panel is studying — including measures that would ban assault-style weapons, expand background checks and allow the seizure of weapons from a person deemed an imminent threat — as commonsense ways to make the community safer.

Kristen Martin, a member of Moms Demand Action from Henrico County, spoke in support of strengthening laws preventing children from accessing guns.

“With all this data being thrown around, let’s not forget all these numbers represent lives lost,” she said.

Others argued the measures under consideration would do nothing to stop criminals and would infringe upon the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

“These laws are never going to be effective because criminals don’t follow them,” said Jay McDaniel of Petersburg.

Gun-rights advocates also expressed concern that some proposals, including ones that would expand the ability of localities to restrict guns in certain places, could leave Virginians unable to protect themselves from criminals.

“We’ve done nothing wrong, but again and again we are told that we have to accept more restrictions on our rights to self-defense for public safety. But what about our safety?” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

The work on gun safety fell to the crime commission after GOP lawmakers abruptly adjourned a special session called by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in the wake of the May 31 attack in Virginia Beach. A city employee fatally shot 12 people inside a municipal building before being shot and killed by police.

The July special session lasted less than two hours before legislation was referred to the commission. That effectively postponed any movement on gun laws until after this year’s November election, when all 140 legislative seats and partisan control of the legislature are up for grabs.

Democrats have accused Republicans of punting until after the election. Republicans have countered that the complex issue demands careful study and suggested Northam called the special session in part to deflect from a blackface scandal that almost drove him from office.

“We have a gun violence issue in Virginia that needs to be addressed, and we’re here to try and come up with proposals and recommendations and policy options that will help do that,” commission chairman Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain said Aug. 20.

But during another part of the meeting, Democratic Del. Mark Levine told Obenshain “no one in Virginia is fooled about what’s going on here.”

“At the end of the day, … it will be up to Virginia voters to decide whether we want to do something to stop gun violence,” he said.

The commission’s Aug. 20 meeting followed a session the day before in which the commission heard hours of presentations on gun violence from representatives of the Virginia State Police, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The 13-member commission — nine lawmakers, three citizens and a state official — is supported by a professional staff.

Obenshain said at the conclusion of the Aug. 20 hearing that the executive committee of the commission would meet the following week and set the timeline for next steps.

-SARAH RANKIN, Associated Press

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