The mood in the Hilton McLean atrium where local gun violence survivors and activists met for a Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America rally on Jan. 25 was unexpectedly optimistic.
The upbeat atmosphere came as a surprise, because only a week earlier Republican legislators in the Virginia General Assembly killed a dozen bills aimed at preventing further gun violence and tightening firearm safety regulations.
The sight of one piece of gun control legislation dying in committee after another is familiar to Virginia activists at this point. State lawmakers introduced more than 70 gun-related bills during their 2018 session, but only one was ultimately enacted.
Yet, the message sent last Saturday to an estimated 150 grassroots volunteers by speakers like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts was one of hope.
Election victories in 2017 and 2018 for political candidates who declared support for gun violence prevention measures fueled the crowd’s conviction that they will eventually prevail.
“We will make sure that all who live here have the right to be free from the threat of gun violence, because the bottom line is we won’t live like this,” Watts said. “…We are changing the course of history through the heavy lifting and unglamorous work of grassroots activism, and we will leave this country better than we found it.”
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who was elected to the Commonwealth’s highest office in 2017, announced a comprehensive package of gun reform legislation on Jan. 4 ahead of the General Assembly’s 2019 session.
The package included a universal background check bill, increased penalties for leaving firearms around children, a ban on the sale, purchase, possession, and transportation of assault weapons, and a prohibition on firearms for people subject to a court protective order.
A top priority for Moms Demand Action and other gun violence prevention groups like the affiliated Students Demand Action and the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety was a “red-flag” bill that would create extreme risk protective orders to temporarily prevent a person from having or accessing firearms if a court finds they pose a substantial danger to themselves or others.
Introduced by Sen. George Barker (D-39th), the State Senate version of the red-flag legislation was narrowly defeated on Jan. 16 in the courts of justice committee on a 7-7 vote. Republican Glen Sturtevant (10th District) joined Democrats in supporting the measure.
Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th) patroned the bill in the House of Delegates, where it died on Jan. 17 when a subcommittee of the chamber’s militia, police and public safety committee recommended passing it by indefinitely.
As a registered nurse who has practiced for almost 45 years, Moms Demand volunteer Mary Wright Baylor says the red-flag bill’s failure was especially frustrating since only days later, a patient at Inova Fairfax Hospital died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The Fairfax County Police Department reported on Jan. 23 that the patient, Thomas Wimmer, 64, of Ashburn, shot himself at least once in the upper body and initially refused to comply and surrender his firearm to officers who arrived on the scene. He died shortly after being taken to the hospital’s trauma center.
“The shooting at Fairfax Hospital the other night has really shaken our community,” Baylor said. “I think it’s important for the Virginia legislature, the General Assembly to pay attention to what happened in one of our level-one trauma centers in this state.”
While concrete legislative progress has been difficult to come by in Virginia, change might be on the horizon as the general public increasingly appears to embrace gun reform.
A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in 2017 found that 94 percent of Virginia voters, including 90 percent of Republicans, are in favor of instituting background checks for all gun buyers.
A majority of Virginia voters support a law repealed in 2012 that limited an individual to buying one handgun per month, and 54 percent of voters generally support stricter gun laws in the state, the survey reported.
The poll’s results were reflected in the outcomes of the past two general elections, which handed all three Virginia statewide offices to Democrats. Congressional candidates like Jennifer Wexton and Abigail Spanberger defeated incumbents in November by making gun violence prevention a critical part of their platforms.
Whether gun reform supporters can carry that momentum into 2019 remains to be seen, but with all 140 General Assembly seats in contention on Nov. 5, Election Day could be a game-changer.
“I’ve been involved in the gun safety movement for a long time, but I will say I’ve never seen as much energy and as much hope,” Bloomberg said. “People keep saying: are you making any progress? Yes, we’re making big progress.”
For Brenda Moss, passing gun violence prevention legislation is a matter of personal importance.
The Lynchburg resident joined Moms Demand Action as a volunteer last June about three years after her son was killed by gun violence, leaving behind a son who is now 16 years old.
“I think the challenge is getting people to understand that these are lives, and they matter,” Moss said. “Lives matter. That’s just it, and you don’t want to wake up and not be able to see your loved one. You don’t want to wake up and not be able to hear from them, because someone decides to take a gun and kill them.”