Martin Luther King Jr. Day is always busy at the Capitol, and this year was far from the exception. The day off from school allows parents to bring their children to the General Assembly Building for what is sometimes students’ first chance to engage in representative government, faith groups gather to celebrate the life, work, and message of Dr. King, and, gun violence prevention advocates to advocate for their positions. Additionally interspersed in the crowd, members of the pro-firearm organization, the Virginia Citizens Defense League meet with legislators to voice their opinions. This year was different as a pro-gun rally drew national attention and attendance. An estimated 22,000 pro-firearm individuals, including out-of-state militia members, traveled from across the state and nation to oppose gun violence prevention legislation, including universal background checks and the reinstatement of Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law that had already passed the Senate and others still under consideration.
Threats of violence from white supremacist groups and message boards led to the arrest of individuals who had stated their intent to perpetrate mass-scale violence at the footsteps of the Capitol. Governor Northam declared a state of emergency, banning firearms in Capitol Square and organizing a joint command of the Virginia State Police, the Richmond Police force, and the Capitol Police to ensure safety during the rally. The Senate and House Joint Rules Committee had previously passed a ban on firearms in the Pocahontas Legislative Building and Capitol. It was disappointing to hear that many constituents, youth organizations, faith groups, and gun safety advocates did not visit Richmond that day due to credible fear for their safety.
Most press accounts highlighted the camo-clad, armed individuals in the streets, but in the Pocahontas building work continued as usual. Arlington County Board Member Katie Cristol navigated the crowds to testify in the Local Government Committee. I met with a dozen constituents from the Citizens Defense League to hear their concerns about gun violence prevention legislation and, while we didn’t agree on most issues, it was a valuable discussion nonetheless. In the afternoon my staff met with gun violence prevention advocates, and the phone lines were constantly busy with Virginians calling in to support the passage of extreme risk protection order legislation, which the full Senate did on Wednesday, January 22nd.
A bill carried by my colleague Louis Lucas (D-Portsmouth), which I co-sponsored, to end the state observance of “Lee-Jackson Day,” and establish Election Day as an official Virginia holiday, passed the full Senate 22-18. In contrast to the Confederate flags flying on 9th Street the day before, I believe this sent a clear message about where the majority of Virginians’ values lie. It is time that we realize the effect of lionizing Confederate Generals has on efforts to advance racial equity. It is also time that we prioritize access to the ballot box–our most fundamental right as citizens.
As we advanced these equity-minded measures, the Senate also passed a slew of bills to ensure equality for the LGBTQ community. On a single day, the Senate passed Senator Scott Surovell’s (D-Fairfax) legislation to ban conversion therapy, a pseudopsychological practice that forces LBGT youth through a dangerous and traumatic process in an attempt to change who they are. This practice has been related to devastating mental health outcomes and higher rates of suicide. We also passed my colleague Jennifer Boysko’s bill to ensure school boards create transgender inclusion policies, and her legislation to allow transgender Virginians to change their sex on their birth certificate to align with their gender. My bill to remove the ban on same-gender marriage from the code also passed 25-18. Ensuring that our laws are reflective of our values is critical to prove what our Commonwealth values. The very next day the Cato Institue published an article covering the passage of this legislation in Virginia titled “13 Republican Senators Stand Like a Stonewall Against Gay Marriage” — a shameful reminder that without Obergfell v. Hodges, gay marriage would not be the law of the land in many states.
Finally, the House version of my bill to comprehensively ban discrimination against LGBTQ Virginians, carried by Delegate Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax), passed out of its assigned committee. The Senate version will be heard on Wednesday, January 29th, and by the time this column is published, I expect it to be sent to the Senate floor.
Despite the contentious vibe in Richmond on MLK day, progress on equity and equality that occurred below the fold was the true story of this past week.
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