The issue of gun control has really come to the fore over the past six months, after the deadly shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin and, just last month, in Newtown, Conn., at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"I'll bet my reaction was the same as everybody else who heard about it," says Del. Bob Marshall (R), who represents parts of Prince William and Loudoun counties in the Virginia House of Delegates. "They thought of little kids in school that they knew, and they thought, 'Oh my God. What would I do if that happened to them?'"
Marshall is proposing legislation that he says would prevent Virginia families from experiencing the same sorrow as Connecticut families have. It would require at least one person in every Virginia public school to be trained and certified to carry a gun.
"You would be having to go through the same requirements that the Department of Criminal Justice Services establishes for a state police officer," Marshall says.
So you'd have to know how to store and use a gun, and how to respond when police come to the scene, "because you don't want to be out in the hall, holding a gun when the regular professional police have arrived," Marshall explains.
After the Sandy Hook shooting, an Ohio-based gun group launched its own firearm-training program for teachers. The Buckeye Firearms Association offered 24 training slots, "and almost 1,100 teachers, public school/private school, and administrators responded," Marshall says.
Making background checks mandatory
It remains to be seen what the response to such a program would be in Virginia. But if you ask Del. Patrick Hope (D), who represents the 47th district, including part of Arlington County, he says "I just don't think more guns are the answer. Principals and teachers, they didn't get into this profession so that they could carry guns. They got into the profession so that could teach."
Hope says rather than arming school staffers, Virginia needs to focus on the people who purchase guns. That's why he and State Sen. Adam Ebbin recently visited Chantilly, Va., and attended a gun show.
"We wanted to see for ourselves just how easy it was to purchase a handgun or weapon without any criminal background check," Hope says.
In fact, he and Ebbin would explicitly tell sellers they wanted to buy a gun, but wanted to avoid a criminal background check. And he says the sellers "were eager to tell us" how to do that.
Now Hope and Ebbin are proposing to make universal background checks mandatory in Virginia. Right now, Hope says, 40 percent of gun sales in the Commonwealth are conducted without a background check.
"And I have to tell you," he adds, "no responsible gun owner would be afraid of a background check."
Background checks, Hope says, help keep guns away from people who have a history of crime, and/or serious mental illness.
Imposing tighter regulations on gun dealers
Across the border in Maryland, State Sen. Brian Frosh (D) agrees.
"The way most guns find their way into crimes is they're bought by a straw purchaser for somebody who's otherwise disqualified," he says. "And in states that have licensing procedures, and by that I mean just something that identifies the purchaser and makes a permanent record of that person's identity — states like New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts have lower rates of gun deaths than do places that are similar demographically, but don't have licensing provisions."
And Maryland, much to Frosh's dismay, is one of those states that doesn't.
So Frosh, who represents Montgomery County, is re-introducing a measure he proposed last year that would allow state police the same authority that the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has in regulating gun dealers.
"You have a few bad actors that cause a lot of the problems," Frosh explains. "They sell to people who aren't properly licensed or registered. Or, they lose — and I use the word, 'lose' loosely — they lose guns that are in their inventory, and many of them end up being used in crimes."
Frosh says in Maryland, the "poster child" of that very thing was a store called Valley Guns, in Baltimore County. The ATF cited Valley Guns for 900 violations of federal law. And at one point, Frosh adds, Valley Guns "had 400 guns, which is about a quarter of their inventory, 'missing.' They couldn't account for them.
"If you're a merchant, and you're missing a quarter of your inventory, you're not likely to be in business very long, unless you're selling them under the counter.
The ATF eventually put Valley Guns out of business. But while Brian Frosh emphasizes that he's not trying to shut down all gun dealers, or violate anyone's Second Amendment rights, Del. Mike McDermott (R), who represents Worcester and Wicomico Counties on the Eastern Shore, believes that's precisely what many of his colleagues want to do.
"I have a very progressive General Assembly body, occupied by a 2-to-1 majority of fairly liberal Democrats that believe that the government can control these things," McDermott says. "And somehow by exerting more control, we can stop these things from happening."
That's why - similar to Bob Marshall in Virginia - Mike McDermott is introducing legislation that would start up a "Guardian" program in Maryland schools.
"They're people that are only known to the administration," he says. "They have wear-and-carry permits, so they're allowed to carry firearms, and the school permits them to carry them on the school grounds."
McDermott refers to the "Guardian" program as an "Alamo type of measure."
"It's basically your last line of defense that a school could offer the students and the staff," he explains.
Another option McDermott's suggesting is less lethal; in lieu of guns, select personnel would carry electronic-control devices: a.k.a. tasers or stun guns. They aren't as effective as a firearm, he says, "but they can still hit at a range of 20 to 25 feet, and they will immobilize a target if they make contact."
Much like Bob Marshall, Mike McDermott says he's promoting safety by granting people the liberty to fight firepower with firepower. On his website, he invokes a quotation by Benjamin Franklin, which reads: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."
"And a lot of people still have that beating in their hearts," McDermott says. "They understand what the principles are that govern liberty and a free people. And part of that is the ability to protect yourself and the things you love."
And of course, if past is prologue, this debate over principles, liberty and how best to ensure our fundamental safety, is sure to be heated — in Annapolis, in Richmond, and, of course, in the nation's capital, in the halls of Congress.
[Music: "One Chance" by Modest Mouse from Good News For People Who Love Bad News]