By Katherine Johnson
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Vice President Joe Biden held a roundtable discussion about gun violence Friday at Virginia Commonwealth University, saying “we cannot remain silent” on the issue.
The discussion was closed to the public, but in his closing remarks, Biden said the panel discussed universal background checks, gun safety, gun trafficking and the “need to expand mental health capacity across the country. We talked about access, and we talked about resources.”
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Deputy U.S. Attorney General Jim Cole joined Biden for the discussion. Virginia officials included U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.
Representing VCU were university President Michael Rao, Police Chief John Venuti and psychiatry professor Bela Sood, who served on the panel that investigated the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech.
Biden said he assembled the panel because he “wanted to pick their brain about what is the most important thing we should be doing.”
The vice president said the panel reached a “broad consensus” that certain parties should be denied access to guns. They include convicted felons, those guilty of domestic violence and those who are legally found to not be capable because of mental capacity.
“We talked about how we deal with that problem overall in our cities and our counties, our communities,” Biden said of gun violence.
He also said the discussion focused on “how we can detect earlier than later” in identifying those who may commit violent crimes involving guns. Biden said President Barack Obama thinks there’s a need for research on “how and what circumstances are you able to identify,” as well as “how and when we should intervene.”
Biden emphasized the connection between mental health and gun violence. The ideal situation, he said, would prevent people who aren’t committed but who do have mental health issues from buying a weapon.
Kaine, who previously served as mayor of Richmond and then as governor of Virginia, spoke of the history of crime in the capital city. He noted that Richmond had the second-highest homicide rate in the U.S. when he was on the City Council.
“I think Richmond is a place and Virginia is a place where we’ve got the scar tissue of tragedy, but we also have the reason to be hopeful,” said Kaine, who was governor at the time of the Tech massacre.
Kaine said the city did specific things to reduce gun violence, and the problem has stayed “significantly lower that where it was.”
“We don’t have to despair about being able to reduce gun violence. There are things you can do that work to reduce gun violence. You can do them by working together,” Kaine said.
To come up with solutions, Kaine said, citizens and community leaders first must decide if gun violence is a problem.
“I think it’s a problem. I think Americans think it’s a problem . . . It’s on our shoulders to take those steps,” he said.
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Virginia’s General Assembly is also focused on preventing campus shootings like the one at Virginia Tech, but gun control is only one segment of the issue.
Before the Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, purchased a gun, he was a mental health outpatient. He was able to obtain the weapon only because he had not been admitted into a mental health institution; therefore, his mental health records did not prevent him from buying firearms.
State Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, has introduced a bill regarding mental health treatment coordination for college students. Senate Bill 1342 seeks to improve the communication between mental health institutions and four-year universities.
The bill was developed after a study conducted by Dr. Richard Bonnie of the Virginia College of Mental Health shortly after the tragedy at Virginia Tech.
“I think what happens is – and this certainly happened in the Virginia Tech case – somebody is treated for mental illness or committed for mental illness, or treated for drug addiction. They are treated in a community facility, and then they return to campus, and there’s no exchange of information,” Petersen said.
“At a minimum, the college ought to have knowledge.”
Petersen’s bill would help establish more services for students seeking mental health services. In addition, the bill would notify the student’s university when he or she is admitted into a mental facility involuntarily.
This bill would also require mental health facilities to communicate with universities when a student is discharged. Petersen said the goal is to improve the communication to help students easily adjust to college life again.
The proposal has been assigned to the Senate Education and Health Committee.
— Alix Hines/Capital News Service