Fifty-six minutes in America

Mass shootings take economic, human toll

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Print this page by Richard Foster
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A May 31 shooting by a disgruntled employee took the lives of 12 people
at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. AP Photo

On May 31, a disgruntled Virginia Beach public utilities engineer went on a shooting rampage through a city municipal building. Over 36 minutes, he killed 11 city workers and a contractor and wounded four others, including a police officer, before he was fatally wounded in a gunfight with police.

On Aug. 3, a white nationalist shot and killed 22 people and wounded 24 more at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart during a 20-minute massacre aimed against immigrants.

About 14 hours later, on Aug. 4, yet another armed and angry young man gunned down 10 people, including his own sister, and wounded 14 others outside a Dayton, Ohio, bar. That attack lasted 30 seconds.

It took 90 minutes — more time than all of these shootings combined — for the Republican-majority Virginia General Assembly to adjourn its July special legislative session on gun control without debating or voting on any legislation.

Instead, they referred all pending bills to the Virginia State Crime Commission for study. The legislature plans to reconvene on Nov. 18, after the upcoming election in which every Assembly seat will be on ballots.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam called the special session in the wake of the Virginia Beach workplace shooting. However, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox decried the move as “an election-year stunt,” calling the session “premature” and saying lawmakers required more time to study gun violence before contemplating legislative actions.

The sale of guns and ammo is an $11 billion industry in the United States. But the financial costs of gun violence far exceed that. Lost wages and economic contributions attributed to firearms violence alone total more than $49 billion annually.

Last year, there were 340 mass shootings across the nation, leaving 373 people dead and 1,346 wounded, according to the nonprofit research group Gun Violence Archive. As of early August, there had been 255 mass shootings in the United States this year — more than one a day — killing 275 people and injuring 1,065.

And that’s just mass shootings. In 2017, more than 39,700 Americans died from overall gun violence, including 1,028 Virginians, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That being said, Virginia is largely a gun-friendly state. About 29% of Virginians own at least one firearm, according to the results of a 2015 survey published in the medical journal Injury Prevention.

In its annual Gun Law Scorecard, the nonprofit, San Francisco-based Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave Virginia a “D” grade, citing factors such as its lack of universal background checks and not requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms. Also, seven years ago, Virginia repealed its law limiting people to purchasing one handgun per month.

In decades past, it wasn’t unusual for even Old Dominion Democrats to campaign as gun-toting hunters — take U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, for example, who handed out blaze-orange “Sportsmen for Warner” bumper stickers depicting hunting rifles during his successful 2001 campaign for governor. However, Warner, who once received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, has walked back many of his pro-gun stances in recent years, renouncing past votes against banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.

Virginia politicians generally have adopted strong anti-gun stances at their peril, though, as evidenced by Democrat Dan Gecker. A popular, two-term Chesterfield County supervisor, Gecker lost his 2015 state Senate race to Republican Glen Sturtevant Jr. Gecker’s campaign was mortally wounded, politicos say, by $700,000 worth of gun-control ads funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund.
Nevertheless, fatigued by the relentless tide of mass shootings, public opinion may be shifting.

A May Quinnipiac poll found that 94% of U.S. voters favor universal background checks, and 61% want stricter gun laws. About 84% of Virginia voters support stronger background checks, and 54% favor increased gun control, according to a 2018 poll by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy.

Following the August shootings, President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke about expanding background checks and instituting “red-flag” gun laws to restrict firearms access for people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others. (Both are initiatives Northam intended to introduce during Virginia’s aborted special session.)

Regardless of the solutions proffered, one thing is clear: Ignoring or sidestepping the problem may not be an option for much longer.

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