They had not even started laying to rest the 12 people killed in the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach before the political games began.
From tragedy comes hope for a trophy.
Mere days after a crazed man walked into the municipal complex in Virginia’s largest city armed with two handguns and began randomly firing away, Old Dominion Democrats and Republicans jumped on the bandwagon, saying all the right things about how we need to prevent this from ever happening again. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, a Democrat, even said he wanted to call the GOP-controlled General Assembly into a special session to come up with some kind of gun-control legislation.
In a year when all 140 seats in the Virginia legislature are on the November ballot and the Republicans hang onto power by nothing short of a whisker, what better time than now to ask everyone to come back to Richmond, and, in the governor’s words, “Let’s get to work.”
That is all well and good. However, the only working that will go on likely will be the partisan spin machines up to and including the session.
Why? Everyone is coming to the session with their own agenda, and they will settle for nothing else.
The governor made it clear: he wants Democratic-backed legislation back in the hopper that had been regularly swatted away like flies on a hot summer screened porch by GOP leadership in previous sessions. That means bans on things like assault weapons, bump stocks and suppressors. That means reinstatement of the one-handgun-a-month purchase requirement that the Republicans did away with seven years ago. That means giving local authorities extra discretion on how to control the flow of illegal firearms through their communities.
The Republicans came back with a “Slow your roll, Ralph” attitude. They called the request “hasty.” They said they were not going to let the governor tell them how to conduct business. Oh... and they also said they would come to the session with their own proposals, and one of them is a minimum mandatory sentence for people convicted of firearms-related crimes.
The line in the Virginia Beach sand was drawn.
What if the agendas were to be left at the Capitol checkpoints, and all 140 lawmakers walk to their desks with nothing in their back pockets or up their sleeves?
What if the governor had just said to them, “Folks, we got a problem, and we need to take care of it before it takes care of us. Y’all come back to Richmond, and let’s see what we can come up with to fix it,” instead of spelling out the Democratic agenda?
That might have made for boring headlines and sound bites, but at least it extinguishes any flame of partisanship in advance. Lawmakers won’t show up with their hind ends up over their shoulders just because the man in the Executive Mansion calls them up and tells them to come on down, and by the way, do it like this ...
Gun control is an issue nationwide. In statehouses across the nation and in Washington, politicians spend more time preaching about what needs to be done and wringing their hands in disgust when the other side does not see it their way. It’s always the others’ fault why we have what we have today.
Politics is a theater filled with both intense drama and absurd comedy — drama in the finger-pointing, and comedy in the way those fingers are sometimes pointed.
What makes the Virginia situation so equally dramatic and absurd is the fact that it is taking place in the absolute perfect part of the state’s political cycle. Instead of meaningful legislation that addresses what needs to be addressed, anything that comes from the hallowed halls of Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Capitol is going to be overseasoned with partisan flavor, no matter how hard the politicians try to spin it.
Headlines from that session will quickly become dueling campaign literature after Labor Day.
It has been a crazy year in commonwealth politics. All three statewide leaders — Democrats — have been caught up in some kind of scandal. Republicans have not fared much better, either, with some infighting among the ranks and the perception hanging over them of being a party willing to do and say anything just to stay at least one up on the other side in legislative nose counts.
Virginia and other states have spent years trying to conjure up the right recipe for controlling guns. To expect that one or two days in the hot Richmond summer is going to change years of discourse is essentially existing in a parallel universe.
Bill Atkinson is assistant editor and political columnist for The Progress-Index in Petersburg, Virginia. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.