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Biden in Richmond: 'We Cannot Remain Silent' On Guns

Vice President holds panel with Sen. Tim Kaine and other leaders on gun safety, gun laws, expanding mental health.

By Katherine Johnson and Mechelle Hankerson, Capital News Service

Vice President Joe Biden held a round-table 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 remarks outside the panel he said the group 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.

Homeland Security Secretary 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, along with Virginia Commonwealth 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 official announcement of Biden’s visit cited the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech as the reason for coming to Virginia and involving Virginians in the discussion.

The round table comes days before Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is expecting early recommendations from his own gun and school safety task force, which he assembled in the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Conn.

The group of 45 politicians, law enforcment officials, educators, mental health professionals, parents and students is expected to deliver some suggestions Jan. 31.

Among the topics Biden's 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," Biden said. “We talked about how we deal with that problem overall in our cities and our counties, our communities,” he said of gun violence.

Twenty-six bills on gun control were filed by Virginia House and Senate members this session; 14 of them are now dead.

This week, a Virginia bill by State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston) that would have closed the "gun-show loophole" allowing people to purchase firearms at gun shows without a background check died in committee.

Lawmakers were were unable to work out an acceptable compromise, even after Sen. William Stanley (R-Franklin County) said last week he would work with Sens. Henry Marsh (D-Richmond) and Don McEachin (D-Henrico) to reach a deal.

Biden said Friday his panel also focused on “how we can detect earlier than later”  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 also emphasized the connection between mental health and gun violence. He said some states fail to report convicted felons, people with a documented mental disability or incapacity, and those convicted of domestic violence – all people who are prohibited by law from purchasing weapons – to the National Instant Check system. As a result, those people can manage to buy weapons.

In Virginia, a bill by State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) that would make it a Class 6 Felony to sell guns to those admitted to mental health facilities or who are otherwise "mentally incapacitated" passed committee this week. It will face the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. 

Sood, who was part of the Virginia Tech Review Panel in 2007, said access to mental health resources at universities is another way to avoid large-scale gun violence. She said it’s important to have adequately staffed counseling centers on campuses and a way to make sure students in need use the centers.

“The No. 1 issue is reducing the stigma around mental health,” she said.

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.

For video from the press briefing, click the media player at right.

Erica R. Hendry contributed reporting to this story.

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