Another epidemic persists in gun deaths

Gun-control advocates hold a candlelight vigil in August 2019 outside the National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax, Va. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Michael A. McCoy

As America deals with a global pandemic, our national epidemic - gun violence - remains just as relentless.

Last month was an especially bullet-riddled May in this country. There were 60 shootings that injured or killed at least four people each. Those bursts of gunfire left more than 250 injured and 40 dead in one month, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

That count doesn't include 200 people who were killed in incidents that involved fewer victims or who died by suicide that month. Meanwhile, the homicide rate in major cities across America stayed steady or increased.

Surprised? Of course. Because gun violence only generates big news when it involves a mass shooting, those Hollywood-scale massacres when schools, churches, synagogues, concerts or movie theaters are packed with people who become victims.

This time last year, everyone was talking about the 12 people killed by a co-worker turned mass shooter at the Virginia Beach municipal complex.

In truth, this is not the way most of the 40,000 killed by bullets annually die. And the folks who pushed for gun reform in Virginia know this.

We slaughter others and ourselves using guns on a daily basis in less public methods - domestic violence, suicides, accidents, arguments - that are immune to pandemic rules about social distancing or large gatherings.

"The pandemic is not going to stop anything," Daphne Austin, founder of the group Mothers of Murdered Sons & Daughters, told a Baltimore TV station. The number of homicides in that city has outpaced last year's total, even amid the shutdown.

While much of the nation has seen big drops in crime overall, gun violence has shown some alarming spikes. Not much of a surprise, given the surge of weekend warriors who stocked up on guns as soon as pandemic shutdowns started.

Even scientists found that "social distancing and stay-at-home orders may not decrease the rates of gun violence; in fact, the coronavirus pandemic is associated with increased rates," according to a study on coronavirus-related violence published by the Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection.

New York, Baltimore and Chicago all saw a bloodier start to 2020 than previous years, the study found. Only Los Angeles had a drop in shootings through early April of this year.

"While multiple factors likely influence the rising number of gun incidents, unemployment, increased alcohol consumption, and increased firearm purchases are possible contributing factors," the researchers wrote.

In other words, America's gun problem is complex and close to home. And that brings us back to Virginia.

Although the commonwealth is getting a lot of scrutiny as the former seat of the Confederacy, its new legislature passed a package of gun laws that go into effect this week. They're not really sexy.

No one is sending out armored vehicles to take everyone's guns away, as gun rights lobbyists and lazy and frightened politicians cried they would.

They're not even banning the assault weapons used in some of the nation's most horrific slaughters.

What's becoming law in Virginia this week is common sense.

Hard to believe that actions such as reporting a stolen gun, safely storing weapons at a child-care facility or keeping loaded weapons stored safely away from your own children are things that need to be legislated.

But those are the ways that way too many people - children especially - have died by gunfire.

Another law is going to make it mandatory that folks served with a permanent protective order give up their guns. That's a no-brainer.

And the new laws will also expand background checks and limit the number of handgun purchases to one per month.

The background check may have kept Brenda Moss's son, Shawn Moss, from being shredded by 17 bullets in Lynchburg six years ago.

"My son was shot and killed by a convicted felon who should never have had access to a gun," Moss, a fiery and beloved speaker who volunteers with Moms Demand Action, wrote in an opinion article for People magazine on Mother's Day.

She saw the danger of gun violence escalating as the shutdowns began in the spring.

"In the midst of this unprecedented coronavirus pandemic and the surge in gun sales it has brought, we need our laws to meet the moment," Moss wrote. "We need a federal law requiring background checks on all gun sales, similar to the one Moms Demand Action volunteers just worked so hard to pass in my home state of Virginia."

Virginia will also join at least 17 other states that have red-flag laws. This will let a judge issue a temporary emergency order to keep a gun out of the hands of someone who is experiencing a crisis and deemed a risk to themselves or others.

It's the safety line sent to families locked down with a drinker, an abuser or anyone who is struggling with mental illness who also has a gun - the very recipe for most of the homicides that don't make headlines. Or the first paragraph of the horrific shootings that do.

A year after the Virginia Beach shooting, it's time to revisit the gun violence debate by taking a look at Virginia, and see the common-sense laws they have passed.

They could be the vaccine that our ongoing bloody epidemic of gun violence needs.

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