Shot Down 

Opinion: "Republicans so often are willing to jack up penalties for various offenses. But when it comes to gun-violence prevention, they’re quick to abandon their tough-on-crime reputation."

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Endless local headlines remind us of the horror of street crime. Who can forget the 1-year-old shot in Richmond’s Hillside Court neighborhood last year, or the Richmond child shot while playing at a Mother’s Day cookout, also last year, by two men arguing nearby. Or the 19-year-old student from Virginia Commonwealth University, who was robbed and fatally shot in Byrd Park in 2008.

Elois Cuffee-Smith traveled to the State Capitol last month to battle street crime, because her son died from it.

One morning in 2009, she heard him calling out for her. She found the 21-year-old struggling on their front porch in Portsmouth. Now a resident of Chesapeake, Cuffee-Smith has five daughters. The child she lost, Braxton Cuffee, was her only son.

As part of the group Parents of Murdered Children, Cuffee-Smith visited the General Assembly to advocate for responsible gun ownership. The majority of her conversations occurred with legislative aides, because most representatives were unavailable even though it was Lobby Day. “I asked them to translate to their bosses what I’ve gone through,” Cuffee-Smith says. “They never walked in my shoes.”

Her son’s killer had been out of prison for only about a month on another charge. Yet he was able to obtain the .45-caliber handgun used in the shooting. He shot her son in an attempted robbery with hollow-point bullets, which mushroom inside victims’ bodies, causing devastating internal injuries. Another weapon was found at the shooter’s apartment.

Cuffee-Smith asked Republican legislative aides, whose bosses typically are hostile to new gun laws, why her son’s killer, fresh out of a regional jail, was able “to get ahold of these weapons.”

One standard refrain she heard was that no matter how many laws you enact, criminals will be able to get guns illegally if they want. Really? Using that logic, why enact speed limits? No matter how many laws are enacted there will always be speeders. Still, society tries to curtail the practice.

Attempting to curb the kind of street violence that makes headlines and killed Cuffee-Smith’s son, Gov. Terry McAuliffe supported a measure to bring back the limit on handgun purchases to one a month. The Virginia State Police supported it.

But the National Rifle Association and the Virginia Citizens Defense League were successful in lobbying this bill to its death. And Virginia Senate and House members, in GOP-controlled subcommittees, recently doomed its passage.

If the one-handgun-a-month bill had passed it would have made buying firearms in bulk more difficult and expensive for traffickers to purchase weapons and re-sell them for crimes. Typically, traffickers hire straw buyers — young people, often women, to buy guns from licensed dealers. Or traffickers get them to buy guns in bulk from unlicensed sales advertised in newspapers or online, or at garage or estate sales.

Making it difficult for traffickers to buy guns in bulk would encourage more of them to resort to gun shows, which would be better, because at least there are some background checks being performed at gun shows — at least by licensed dealers.

When you examine police records with arrests, it’s clear that criminals go to gun shows. And one study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives links 30 percent of guns involved in federal trafficking situations with gun shows. New data from the Virginia State Police, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports, also show that “the percentage of arrests at gun shows among people denied approval to buy firearms has increased for a third consecutive year.” That means police are enforcing existing laws to help prevent guns from falling into dangerous hands.

Unfortunately, though, the new legislation supported by police and the governor to improve public safety — also shot down by GOP-dominated subcommittees — would have made gun shows even less hospitable for criminals.

McAuliffe also advocated for a bill requiring background checks for private purchases at gun shows. Currently, if you buy firearms from an unlicensed or private seller at gun shows there is no background check. Only purchases from licensed gun dealers require such a check. This is the gaping gun-show loophole.

Other gun bills doomed by Virginia Republicans would have made all online gun sales subject to background checks. Today, if a deranged individual like the shooter at Virginia Tech were planning a similar style mass killing, he could go to various firearms websites to purchases guns — no questions asked. Virginia Tech was the site of the worst mass shooting in America. Why don’t Virginia’s gun laws try to prevent such massacres?

Sadly, the GOP — so often willing to jack up penalties for a plethora of various offenses — is quick to abandon its tough-on-crime reputation when it comes to gun-violence prevention.

Many people believe crime mostly affects inner-city residents, so they don’t care much about it. But safer municipalities mean more suburbanites are willing to travel downtown to trendy restaurants, see a ballgame or visit museums. This helps cities thrive. And reducing crime in metropolitan areas means that more rising college students will feel safer applying to institutions of higher learning in urban areas.

Come November, all 140 seats in the General Assembly will be up for grabs. Cuffee-Smith’s failed journey to the Capitol won’t be in vain if we elevate her voice by getting to the polls in the fall and electing officials who will lead Virginia toward responsible gun ownership.

One popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results. This notion applies to beating crime. If we keep electing the same officials, thinking they’ll change their minds and support the need for universal background checks, or new laws to get guns off our city streets — well then perhaps we really have lost our minds. S

Susan Ahern is s free-lance writer who lives in Midlothian.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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