Last year, Democrats in control of Virginia’s legislature passed a universal background check bill requiring all gun sales to go through a federally licensed firearms retailer who conducts a NICS check before firearms are sold. The new law was widely praised by gun control activists and anti-gun politicians when it was enacted, but it’s done jack squat in terms of reducing crime.
In fact, while Democrats were patting themselves on the back for their new gun control laws, homicides in Virginia were rising to a 20-year high. And as lawmakers prep for a special session in Richmond early next month, both Republicans and Democrats are hoping to present themselves as the party with a solution before voters head to the polls in November.
I don’t expect Democrats to try to push a ban on so-called assault weapons during this special session, but there are certainly voices calling for additional gun control measures. One of them is Norfolk, Virginia Police Chief Larry Boone, who blames increased gun sales on the rise in violent crime and believes that no crime-fighting strategy can be successful until all firearm transfers can be tracked via a paper trail.
On today’s Bearing Arms’ Cam & Co, we’re taking a closer look at the flaws in Chief Boone’s big idea, but in order to do that, we should start with the chief’s actual comments.
For years, Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone has been trying to gather data on how firearms flow from gun-store shelves to crime scenes in his city’s high-poverty neighborhoods.
Though experts and politicians have floated multiple theories about what’s driving an uptick in violence in Virginia and the rest of the country, Boone says guns are too easy to get and too hard to track as they change hands, and the COVID-19 pandemic made that problem worse.
“The gun sales soared. They soared to such a degree that now we are dealing with Armageddon,” Boone said in an interview. “We have young folks shooting young folks. And that’s the reality of it.”
Virginia’s homicide rate hit a 20-year high in 2020, and many cities are seeing higher rates of violence persist in 2021. Some of the shootings making headlines this summer have involved shockingly young victims, and the accused shooters are often teenagers themselves.
“What’s alarming to me, in the last year and a half, is the age of the shooters and the age of the victims,” Boone said. “That’s the thing that stands out the most. How brazen they are … They simply do not value life. They will pull a trigger intending to hit a specific person. But they don’t mind collateral damage either.”
Now, we’ve already seen studies showing that the rise in violent crime last year can’t be linked to record-setting gun sales, but Virginia’s own history helps to further disprove the chief’s theory. Back in 2013, gun sales soared to then-record highs in the Commonwealth, but violent crime continued its steady decline. In fact, in 2013 (and continuing to this day) Virginia had one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the entire country.
What Chief Boone is describing is a change in behavior among offenders, one that’s led to more violence. Why would their behavior change? Boone would have us believe it’s because of a record number of legal gun sales, and not, say, calls to defund the police and the embrace of an anti-policing mentality on the part of many Democrats last year. Then again, Boone himself has backed stripping funds from his own department, so perhaps there’s some extra motivation to not blame the push for de-policing on the rise in violent crime.
With lawmakers set to return to Richmond in early August and public safety on the agenda, it sounds like Boone’s top priority is getting more gun control laws on the books, rather than focusing on putting the relatively few core offenders behind bars.
Boone, the Norfolk police chief, said community violence intervention programs can be helpful with the right people involved and the right level of commitment. But, he said, policymakers are “chasing our tail if we never impact the flow of guns.” To really make a difference, he said, there should have to be a paper trail every time a gun changes hands. (Virginia began requiring background checks on gun sales between private parties last year).
“It’s always been on the police to manage things that governments, generations ago, created,” Boone said. “In any urban setting that has poverty, it looks like Norfolk, it looks like Detroit, it looks like Richmond. It has looked that way for decades. I’m going to say it again, until we impact the flow and start tracking guns, we’ll continue to have this conversation.”
And now we get to the heart of Boone’s argument, as well as its most fundamental flaw; why on earth would criminals produce a paper trail of their illicit gun sales and trades? Boone acts like most criminals are getting their guns by purchasing them from legal gun owners, which simply isn’t the case. Theft, family, and friends are by far the most common ways that criminals get their hands on a gun, which largely precludes the idea of establishing a paper trail from the original retail sale to the gun ending up in the possession of a violent criminal. The fact that violent crime went up and not down after Virginia’s universal background check law took effect is just the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae of evidence that Boone’s big idea is utterly worthless when it comes to addressing crime.
Here’s another idea for Chief Boone: if you want to impact the flow of guns into criminal hands focus on reducing the demand rather than trying to track the supply. The best way to do that is to make it more consequential to use a gun in the commission of a violent crime; first by upping the arrest rate and then delivering longer sentences and fewer plea bargains once the case moves from police to prosecutors. Obviously Boone and the Norfolk police can’t do that on their own, but they can get the ball rolling, and they don’t need to try to establish a de facto gun registry to do it.
Instead of dreaming of a gun control solution to fighting violent crime, Boone should look at what law enforcement across Virginia did over the past 20 years, when the state’s violent crime and homicide rates plummeted. He doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel or impose unconstitutional and impractical gun control laws; he just needs to focus the efforts of his department on those relatively few members of the community who are responsible for the violence itself. If he can’t do that, then maybe it’s time Norfolk defund the chief’s position and replace Boone with someone who’s more interested in fighting violent crime than creating new gun laws.