Delores McQuinn column: Virginia lawmakers must come together on gun violence

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The nation’s reaction to Parkland feels different. The ground is shaking. High school students are organizing walk-outs, companies are dropping affiliations with the NRA, and even Republican lawmakers in other states and in Washington are making strides to advance, or at least discuss, gun safety legislation.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is calling for a ban on bump stocks and raising the age to buy an assault weapon to 21.

Sen. Marco Rubio and Vice President Mike Pence are calling for measures that would grant restraining orders to remove firearms from those who prove to be a credible threat to themselves or others — legislation similar to a bill carried by my friend and colleague Del. Rip Sullivan this session.

However, in Virginia we haven’t seen that response; we’re lagging behind despite our tragic history. Virginia lived through the third-worst mass shooting in our nation’s history at Virginia Tech. For us, it’s not whether what happened in Parkland could happen in Virginia — it already has.

In floor speeches and press conferences, House Democrats have called on Republicans to take on some basic and bipartisan gun safety legislation. Republicans have responded in floor speeches, arguing that mass shootings are caused by almost everything but the easy access to weapons and the lack of legal recourse to remove weapons from dangerous people.

We saw them blame video games or lack of Christian teaching in public schools.

As a minister and devout Christian, I believe that much prayer is needed on this issue — but it also demands action. As Scripture says: “Faith without works is dead.”

But it was last Friday’s speech on the floor by Del. Nick Freitas that derailed the conversation on gun reform, when his comments went from out of touch to out of bounds.

Using language laced with racial dog whistles and cherry-picked figures, Freitas cited the “abortion industry,” social services, welfare, family structure, and a litany of excuses for gun violence.

In response to a speech in which Del. Ken Plum likened the activism of Barbara Johns during the civil rights movement to the activism of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Freitas suggested that today’s Democratic Party should carry the blame for slavery and segregation.

In his attempt to call for shared respect, Freitas crossed a line, especially with African-American colleagues. Evoking a very painful past to score cheap political points does not help us come together on this issue.

This is why I felt compelled on Monday to respond on the floor and share the impact his words had on me and so many other Virginians.

We Democrats understand that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle feel strongly about the Second Amendment, and we respect their advocacy on behalf of responsible gun owners in the commonwealth.

We know that they want to end mass shootings just as we all do, and I regret that tensions have gotten out of hand and distracted us from reaching common ground.

But we cannot give up.

Rarely do lawmakers in Washington come together better than we do in Richmond, and this issue should be no different.

This session we have worked together on expanding health care to more than 300,000 Virginians, we took a giant leap in criminal justice reform by raising the felony larceny threshold, and we came together to address the opioid crisis.

So let’s come together in this last week of session and engage in a productive debate that will lead to action and save lives.

Our job is to help keep Virginia families safe, and we cannot abdicate that responsibility any longer.

Doing our job means coming together, turning down the rhetoric, and listening to one another. There is too much at stake for us not to.

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