RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A tragic mass shooting at a Texas elementary school is renewing debates over gun control and school safety in Virginia.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, an evil act and sending prayers to those impacted. But unsurprisingly, they’re split on how the state and federal government should respond.
President Joe Biden is calling on Congress to turn pain into action. U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) said he would support universal background checks, as well as a ban on assault weapons and limits on the size of magazines.
“There are strategies that work. None of them, just like a seatbelt, eliminate every death,” Kaine said. “It just brings down death rates and keeps people safer.”
Kaine acknowledged that getting legislation out of the Senate, which would require 60 votes, is unlikely.
“The shootings are bad enough but what really makes it sting is the realization that Congress has done nothing. I mean, the Virginia Tech shooting was 15 years ago. At the time it was the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States. It isn’t anymore,” Kaine said.
Virginia’s Republican Reps. Rob Wittman, Ben Cline, Morgan Griffith and Bob Good didn’t agree to interviews on Wednesday.
At the Virginia State Capitol, there’s been more movement on gun control legislation. In 2020, former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed laws expanding background checks, prohibiting guns on school property and creating a process to seize firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
That same year, a push to ban the new sale of assault weapons and the possession of high-capacity magazines in Virginia came up short. It’s something Democrats like Senator Jennifer McClellan want to revisit. She also wants to address the root causes of gun violence by creating a hub for research and collaboration with localities.
“The measures that we have in place make it harder for there to be a mass shooting in Virginia but there is more that we can do,” McClellan said.
Additional gun restrictions are not likely to advance anytime soon, with Republicans now in control of statewide offices and the House of Delegates.
Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, the tie-breaking vote in the state Senate, campaigned as a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment. Democrats criticized Sears’ planned speech at an NRA event in Texas later this week. Sears didn’t respond to an interview request on Wednesday or to questions on whether she still plans to attend.
Republicans tried unsuccessfully to reverse recent gun control reforms during the 2022 session.
Following the tragedy in Texas, many are focused on school safety.
A bill taking effect July 1 ensures law enforcement will be more involved in school safety audits. Another requires school boards to create a detailed and accurate floor plan for each public school building in their division for inclusion in their regular school safety audit.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin backed a bill to require a school resource officer in every building.
Currently, 705 schools in Virginia, or 38%, don’t have a school resource officer, according to Delegate Karen Greenhalgh (R-Virginia Beach). She said that includes 596 elementary schools, 30 middle schools, 30 high schools and 49 others.
The version of the bill that ultimately passed was watered down. Instead, it requires schools that don’t have an officer on campus full-time to designate a law enforcement liaison as a point of contact.
Senator Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach), who sponsored the original bill in the Senate, said that’s not enough.
“I’m very disappointed that we couldn’t get this done,” DeSteph said. “If we don’t fund a school resource officer in every school, it’s not enough.”
Some Democrats argue additional funding should go toward more robust mental health resources in schools, rather than police officers.
Gov. Youngkin proposed funding for an SRO grant program but it’s not clear if it’ll be included in the budget deal. The General Assembly is expected to vote on a plan as early as June 1.
Youngkin declined an interview request on Wednesday.
In a statement, Youngkin’s spokesperson Macaulay Porter said Youngkin has been briefed by Secretary Robert Mosier, Secretary Aimee Guidera, Secretary John Littel and State Superintendent Jillian Balow about actions taken to protect children in schools and the resources available at the state level to provide mental health access as needed in response to the shooting in Texas.
“The Governor has asked his administration to evaluate steps already taken and future steps to help ensure our schools are safe. The Governor previously requested an additional $50 million in the budget for School Resource Officers and is hopeful the General Assembly will prioritize this important request,” Porter said.