Virginia Needs Gun Laws That Protect People Not the NRA

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By Helen Li

The white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville showed us that Virginia needs less hate and division in our Commonwealth. The recent shootings in Las Vegas – reminiscent of our own tragedy at Virginia Tech – reminded us that we need solutions to the gun violence epidemic. But if Ed Gillespie becomes governor of Virginia, we’ll be choosing a leader who is beholden to the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has shown us time and time again that gun safety and racial equity are the last things they want.

The NRA is dumping money into television ads and spending massive amounts of money in Virginia to buy off politicians like Ed Gillespie, a corporate lobbyist who is the Republican candidate for governor, and put them into power. And it seems clear that neither the NRA, nor politicians like Gillespie care how many innocent people, especially people of color, get hurt in their greed to dominate. The so-called “gun control” measures on Gillespie’s platform, all backed by the NRA, pretend to be tough on crime but do nothing to solve the problem of gun violence.

What these measures actually do is target people of color. Just look at the failed Project Exile program Gillespie wants to reboot. Project Exile imposes stiffer sentences on people who have served prison sentences and are arrested in possession of a gun. People of color are more likely to be imprisoned in the first place, which means they are also more likely to receive harsher sentences under this program if they’re found with a gun after their release. Many of them are not even aware these laws exist.

The NRA’s ideology plays into the hands of a criminal justice system that already disproportionately punishes people of color—particularly here in Virginia, which has one of the worst school-to-prison pipelines in the country. I personally know white women from college who got off with a warning when they were caught shoplifting, while my friend who is an immigrant was sentenced with a felony and jail time for stealing diapers for her baby in a moment of desperation. The criminal justice system does not treat everyone equally.

That’s one of the many reasons I’m voting for Ralph Northam, a leader who will fight to reduce gun violence and protect the people of Virginia—people of all backgrounds, races and beliefs, including law-abiding gun owners. Northam understands that NRA-backed policies will worsen the problem of a justice system that puts a disproportionate number of people of color, immigrants and members of other vulnerable communities behind bars. When asked about Gillespie’s inclusion of Project Exile in his platform, Northam’s campaign replied that all ideas to reduce crime must be “implemented in a way that does not exacerbate the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”

Even before he began running for governor, Northam, a pediatric neurologist, used his medical expertise to push for new gun-control measures. Because of his experience treating wounded veterans as an Army doctor during Operation Desert Storm, Northam knows that assault weapons do not belong in our communities. And he knows firsthand about the need for restrictions on buying and carrying guns after seeing children suffering the consequences of gunshot wounds in his private practice.

Las Vegas, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Orlando… every new gun-related tragedy demonstrates the urgent need for sensible gun safety measures to protect innocent Americans. This November, it’s more important than ever to keep the NRA at bay by electing leaders who put everyday people above the gun lobby. There’s too much at stake, both for people of color and the entire Commonwealth.

Helen Li is a Fairfax County resident, community activist and communications fellow for the Center for Community Change Action.