Archives July 2019

Special Session Not So Special – Or Necessary

As I write this, it has been just over two weeks since the Virginia General Assembly convened for a special session called by Gov. Ralph Northam. Yet, almost as soon as they met, they adjourned for a four-month recess.

It should be obvious what the nature of any “special” session is. It is not routine. It is extraordinary and necessary.

In this case, the extraordinary – and incomprehensible – reason for the session occurred Friday, May 31, at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. Northam felt that the legislature should gather to debate gun regulation without the benefit of an investigation and based largely on his and many of our neighbors’ justifiable disgust over far too many gun deaths.

Unfortunately, while having strong emotions frequently stimulates action, letting raw anger, frustration, sorrow and fear be the impetus for lawmaking does not result in respectful, conscientious and lasting law.

Equally unfortunate is that the governor knew before the Virginia Beach shooting victims’ funerals had even been conducted that he would create a political sideshow. It’s almost as if he was looking for a lifeline for his own political survival.

Of the legislation submitted at this special session, there were only a handful of pieces that truly met the criteria of possibly having some sense of urgency. They were submitted by state Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach.

Knight filed three resolutions, two of which were passed on a voice vote, celebrating the lives of those killed in the mass shooting and commending the first responders who helped so many on that day. The third resolution, seeking federal tax benefits for the victims’ surviving families, has been referred to the House Committee on Appropriations.

Knight also filed three bills that were directed to the appropriations committee:

► HB 4013 Taxes on income, wills, and administrations; exemption for victims of the Va. Beach mass shooting.
► HB 4022 Virginia Beach Municipal Center; grants for the renovation of Building 2.
► HB 4023 Treasury loans; renovation of Building 2 of the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.

This practical legislation does what you would expect from state government after a tragedy – help the affected community by advancing efforts sought by its leaders.

“I submitted my four pieces of legislation for the victims and the city of Virginia Beach,” Knight told me. “That was my focus.”

But Knight also told me something incredibly disturbing. When Democrats were asked about the scope of the “special” session, they unequivocally stated that they would not entertain these appropriations bills and that the session’s sole purpose was to debate guns. Knight minimized that point during our conversation. His bills will eventually be considered and in time to be put to good use.

The tax bills, if enacted, will be passed in advance of next year’s filing deadlines, and funding for Building 2 will be appropriated in time before any major renovations commence.

So, where does that really leave us? Was this “special” session really all that urgent?

No. Every year, the legislature gathers, examines, debates and votes on more than 2,000 bills. Many of them the very same gun bills proposed year after year — background checks, regulation on bump stocks or silencers, open or concealed carry in public buildings, permitting localities to make their own rules, etc. Nothing new under the sun.

When Northam learned of the adjournment until November, he reacted with emotion rather than logic: “It is shameful and disappointing that Republicans in the General Assembly refuse to do their jobs, and take immediate action to save lives. I expected better of them. Virginians expect better of them.”

Reality: None of these proposed gun regulations would have prevented what happened here on May 31. Are the proposals worthy of discussion? Of course, but in due course.

Instead of pulling this community together with strong leadership or acting rationally to support Virginia Beach, blatant partisanship has been on display. The one who should be ashamed resides in the governor’s mansion.


This column appears in the Roanoke Times and in the print issue of The Princess Anne Independent News

Balancing safety and liberty

Every year at this time, I invariably think of the Founding Fathers. Moreover, it is very easy for Benjamin Franklin to be one of the first who comes to mind.

Franklin – a publisher, legislator, scientist, ambassador and more – was on the committee that drafted our Declaration of Independence.

We also remember Franklin very well for his proverbs.

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. 

God gives all things to industry.

There are no gains without pains.

He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas. 

And, my personal favorite:

You may give the man an office, but you cannot give him discretion.

These are just some of the maxims attributed to him found on the pages of his Poor Richard’s Almanack

However, also attributed to him is a saying we regularly return to when we want to discuss the balance between freedom and security: Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

In 2011, Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute, did his best Inigo Montoya impersonation at explaining away why this saying is not really a testimony to the “devil’s bargain” between constitutional government and anarchy. 

“Franklin was not describing some tension between government power and individual liberty,” Wittes noted. “He was describing, rather, effective self-government in the service of security as the very liberty it would be contemptible to trade.”

You should read Wittes’ whole blog post, “What Ben Franklin Really Said,” via lawfareblog.com. It is not long and offers an interesting look into colonial politics in the mid-1750s. Franklin’s words still resonate very clearly when one chooses to see them through a civil libertarian lens.

With the recent tragedy in Virginia Beach, the upcoming special General Assembly session on gun control, threats of “domestic” terrorism at our public gatherings and our annual veneration of the Declaration of Independence, now does seem as good a time as any to chew on this idea again: Is liberty and security an “either/or” proposition?

Honestly, this discussion is as old as mankind, and so that should readily point us to the answer: No. It is not an even exchange.

If you think otherwise, one needs only to open the Bible to the Book of Exodus. And, if you have a different faith, you’ll find other sets of imposed curbs on behavior.

But what is the point of the laws? Are they meant to restrict freedom? If you answer in the affirmative, then you are not considering the alternatives or the net result.

For example, consider “thou shalt not kill.” Clearly, this rule restricts your ability to inject your personal choice over life or death. It gives due process for the accused or protects the innocent and harmless from tyranny. Supposedly.

Or consider having no restrictions on what a property owner can or cannot do with their property. If you live in a community, and one of your neighbors does not act as a good steward of their property, there can be serious consequences to the freedom of others in terms of their own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. In other words, the saying “where one person’s freedom ends, another’s begins” — not Franklin’s — is also very true.

Franklin also wrote:

Love thy neighbor, but don’t tear down the hedge.

Ultimately, when making law, the overall net benefit to the community that maximizes freedom while providing the necessary curbs on human nature should be what is most considered.

Independence remains a matter of perspective. You can have too much of a good thing — both in freedom and an overreaching government. Let’s hope we continue to pursue that balance through our constitutional republic for a very long time. 

What kind of government do we have? “A republic, if you can keep it,” as we are still warned by Franklin today. 

And that idea — our shared great experiment — is still worth celebrating.


This column appears in The Princess Anne Independent News