Will a new gun control law allowing people to voluntarily sign up to be prohibited from owning firearms actually get used by anyone? And why was the bill written to begin with? Graham Moomaw of the Virginia Mercury says the idea is for at-risk individuals to let the state know they’re too much of a danger to themselves or others to be allowed to purchase a gun. While supporters say it could have a big impact on suicides in the state, in practice it looks like the law hasn’t done much at all in the one state where it’s already on the books.
Nearly two-thirds of Virginia gun deaths are suicides, according to the Virginia Department of Health data presented to policymakers last year. From 2007 to 2018, more than 56 percent of suicides involved guns. In 2018, there were 674 gun-related suicides in the state. The state data shows most firearm suicides involve handguns, and White men are more likely to be victims of gun suicide than other demographic groups.
The new law will allow anyone over 18 to add themselves to the list, designed to be kept confidential, by filling out a form with a copy of their photo ID and mailing it or delivering it to the Virginia State Police. Once a person is on the list, it will be against the law for them to purchase or possess a gun and unlawful for anyone to knowingly sell or give a gun to a person on the list. If someone on the list changes their mind, they can be removed after waiting 21 days.
Republicans objected to the bill in part because of the lack of safeguards to prevent people from falsely putting someone else on the “no-buy” list. While doing so is a crime, it’s also going to be somewhat easy to do, especially if you’re able to get access to someone’s photo ID long enough to make a copy of it. Democrats, on the other hand, including the bill’s sponsor, say it’s a “no-brainer” piece of mental health legislation that will save lives.
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the legislation, said he thought the idea might get bipartisan support, particularly because pro-gun Republicans often say mental health, not lax gun regulation, is the primary problem. He was wrong.
“Here I have a bill that takes the mental health problem head-on and is completely voluntary to the person who’s the subject of it. And you can take yourself off the list whenever you want,” Surovell said. “I thought it would be a no-brainer. But I couldn’t get anybody else on the other side to agree.”
It is a no-brainer piece of legislation, but not in the way Surovell intended to use the word. This is a brainlessly simplistic piece of legislation that, by the way, has barely been used in the two years that a similar law has been on the books in Washington State.
Darren Wright, a spokesman for the Washington State Patrol, said he did not know of any cases of someone being added to the list without their knowledge.
The Washington program, which passed in 2018, has not seen heavy use. Wright said 13 people have asked to be entered into the system.
Vars called the level of participation in Washington so far “disappointing,” but said it’s important to make people aware of the program and make it easy to sign up for it.
In that regard, Virginia having a mail-in option instead of requiring a trip to the courthouse could encourage more participation.
“Going down there and having to look somebody in the eye and say ‘I don’t think I’m safe, I’ve had suicidal thoughts,’ it’s a barrier,” Vars said. “I think the Virginia bill is better in that way.”
I doubt it, but we’ll see. What I do know is that this bill, like the state’s new “red flag” law, actually does nothing to address the mental health crisis that Del. Surovell referred to. Neither law actually mentions mental health professionals in the legislation. Both are designed simply to remove any legally owned firearms from people, while leaving the supposedly troubled individuals to fend for themselves.
Last November, the heads of the state’s psychiatric hospitals said the state’s mental health system was in crisis, but rather than actually address the issue, Democrats in the state legislature decided to pass several gun control bills and call them mental health bills instead. Virginia hospitals are still running out of room for in-patient psychiatric treatment, but it’s far cheaper (if less effective) to simply focus on any legally owned guns those in crisis might have, rather than actually treating the illness that they’re suffering from.
This bill may be constitutional, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be effective. Virginia Democrats had a chance to treat mental health problems with mental health professionals, but with their red-flag law and their voluntary no-buy list, they’ve chosen instead to treat mental illness with law enforcement instead.