Demystifying the Virginia State Crime Commission

On July 9, I spent more time getting ready for work and finding parking than Republicans spent working during that day’s special session on gun violence prevention. After 90 minutes, Senator Tommy Norment and (now former) Speaker of the House Kirk Cox adjourned the special session without voting on any bills that were introduced to address gun violence in Virginia. 

Instead, they sent all the bills to the Virginia State Crime Commission and asked the commission to examine the state’s laws on firearms and public safety. I was curious to learn more about the Commission. I’m sure I’m not alone. What exactly is the role of the Crime Commission and why do conservatives keep sending bills there for consideration?

What is the Virginia State Crime Commission?

According to their website, the purpose of the commission is to study, report, and make recommendations on all areas of public safety and protection. This includes:

ommendations on all areas of public safety and protection. This includes:

  • studying the root causes of crime and ways to reduce and prevent it
  • studying the wages of persons in law enforcement and related fields 
  • the apprehension, trial, and punishment of criminal offenders.

The Crime Commission is made up of 13 members including nine legislative members, three non-legislative members, and one state official. Its legislative members include Delegate C. Todd Gilbert (R),  Vice-chair, Delegate Robert B. Bell (R) and is chaired by state Senator Mark D. Obenshain (R). They all have special relationships with the National Rifle Association (NRA). 

In September, Del.Gilbert received a whopping $200,000 donation to his political action committee from the NRA. Del Gilbert, Del. Bell and Senator Obenshain received A ratings from the NRA. When your funds are coming from the gun lobby, your legislative actions will follow. But during the 2020 General Assembly, we have new leadership and the composition of the committee’s members will change.  

Weeks of Study but No Hard Recommendations

I had a small hope that conservative politicians would do something about gun violence in Virginia. I mean, In 2017, Virginia had the 32nd highest gun death rate among the states, with a gun death rate of 11.9 gun deaths per 100,000 persons—roughly the national average. Of course the Crime Commission would come back with some substantial findings. 

I was wrong. The crime commission published its report, “Mass Killings and Gun Violence,” on November 12, 2019.  The report gave no recommendations on gun violence prevention, stating there was “inconclusive evidence” to support making any. The commission also stated that “the absence of recommendations should not be interpreted as meaning that no changes to Virginia’s laws are necessary, but rather that any changes are policy decisions which can only be made by the General Assembly”. What a lovely waste of taxpayers’ time. 

When Virginians voted this November, gun violence prevention was central to our vote but was the crime commission listening? Ninety four percent of Virginia voters support requiring background checks for all gun buyers, with 90% of Republican voters supporting the measure. Fifty four percent of Virginians support stronger gun laws in the Commonwealth and 49% say it’s too easy to buy a gun in Virginia. 

There are major gaps in our criminal justice system. Recently, Democratic legislators introduced bills to rename the crime commission the “Justice Commission” and repurpose its scope to focus more closely on criminal justice reform including gun violence prevention, equity, and rehabilitation.  The legislation would also diversify the commission’s membership by adding experts in rehabilitation, reform and reentry, the Executive Director of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, and the State Police Superintendent.

Republicans in the General Assembly enjoy the benefits of doing the work of the corporate gun lobby to avoid taking real action on gun violence prevention. They blocked common-sense gun violence prevention bills during the regular General Assembly Session this year including a universal background check bill, a ban on assault firearms, an “extreme risk protective order”, and reinstating Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law.  Voters were watching and remembered who put money ahead of our safety––that’s why we flipped the House of Delegates and the state Senate blue in November 

Now is the time to advance a new vision of gun violence prevention to ensure that when we talk about justice for all, we truly mean all of us. No exceptions. Please email your state legislators and tell them to support sensible gun laws. 

Check out other blogs from Progress Virginia on gun violence prevention:

Awaiting the Next Mass Shooting While Conservatives Twiddle Their Thumbs

Republicans Are Funded By Corporate Special Interests, Democrats Funded By Real People

Toothless Crime Commission Won’t Make Necessary Change to Save Lives and Prevent Gun Violence