Northam-backed assault weapon bill will include ‘grandfather clause’ for existing guns

By: - December 9, 2019 7:26 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam held a public cabinet meeting last month to lay out his policy goals for the coming legislative session — bills that have failed in past years but are now likely to pass under Democratic control of the General Assembly. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A pending assault weapon ban backed by Gov. Ralph Northam will include a provision allowing Virginians to keep firearms they already have, the governor’s office said Monday.

Banning the sale of military-style weaponry commonly used in mass shootings was a key element of the gun-control agenda Virginia Democrats successfully ran on this year. But party leaders had yet to lay out a clear position on how they intend to deal with legally purchased guns already in circulation.

“In this case, the governor’s assault weapons ban will include a grandfather clause for individuals who already own assault weapons, with the requirement they register their weapons before the end of a designated grace period,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement Monday evening. “Additional details on this and all other bills will be announced prior to the start of the upcoming session.”

Though legislation for the 2020 General Assembly session is still being written, gun-rights supporters have directed a wave of outrage at an early draft of a bill filed by incoming Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax. Saslaw’s legislation would have made it a felony to possess an pistol, rifle or shotgun that falls under its “assault weapon” definition after the bill takes effect and didn’t appear to make any exceptions for gun owners who already have them.

In a brief phone interview Monday night, Saslaw said the bill he filed won’t be the main assault weapon proposal and will be amended at a later date. Asked about the governor’s support for grandfathering in existing weapons, Saslaw said “that would make sense.”

“I’m not going to lock up a large part of Virginia,” Saslaw said.

The comments from the two Democratic leaders seem to lay out a path forward for how an assault weapon ban will be implemented in Virginia, where Democrats just won full control of the state legislature for the first time in a generation.

Amherst County residents raise their hands to show support for their county’s “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolution. November 19, 2019. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

The new Democratic majorities are expected to pass a variety of gun restrictions, including universal background checks, red flag laws that would allow authorities to take guns from people deemed dangerous and reinstatement of a one-handgun-a-month law. Polls have found broad support for those measures, and Democratic lawmakers made them a centerpiece of their 2019 election campaigns as they ousted GOP majorities that have spent years blocking efforts to tighten the state’s gun laws.

But the proposed ban on particular types of firearms — and the prospect of criminal charges for gun owners who didn’t give them up — seemed to stoke the strongest outrage in the 40-plus rural localities that have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries within the past few weeks. Of the dozens of bills already filed for the session that begins in January, Saslaw’s assault weapon bill was the most-read, according to the state’s online legislative system.

Some Democrats had already suggested that the assault weapon bill drawing the most attention may not turn out to be the final product.

“I think what’s filed may not necessarily be what’s passed,” incoming House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, told reporters last week at a Virginia Press Association event.

In an email to supporters Monday, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, the staunchly pro-gun group fueling the gun sanctuary movement in the state, said Saslaw’s bill was  “a bridge too far” and was likely to be swapped out for something that included a grandfather clause. But the group made clear that it will continue to oppose any assault weapon ban and reject anything presented as a compromise.

“Who are WE to negotiate away the right of future generations to own AR-15s, or their equivalent, and magazines of whatever capacity they want?,” the VCDL email said. “Who are WE to give away the right of future generations to protect themselves from criminals or from a government that’s gone tyrannical, just so we can selfishly have our guns and magazines now?”

The Northam-backed plan mirrors the federal assault weapon ban passed in 1994, which included a grandfather clause for weapons that were legally owned when the legislation was enacted. The federal ban expired in 2004.

The seven states that have enacted their own assault weapon bans all grandfathered in pre-existing weapons, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Though specifics could change as the Virginia legislation moves forward, previous Democratic proposals defined assault weapons as any semiautomatic rifle or pistol with a fixed magazine capacity of more than 10 rounds, and any shotgun with a capacity of more than seven rounds. The proposed bans have also covered a variety of gun features and modifications such as bump stocks, suppressors, folding or telescoping stocks, pistol grips, thumbhole stocks and mounts for bayonets or grenade launchers.

It’s not clear how many guns in Virginia would fall into the proposed assault weapon definitions. The National Rifle Association has said Saslaw’s bill would have outlawed “common firearm parts” as well “America’s most popular rifle, the AR-15.”

Democrats have said they want to rein in the guns capable of doing the most damage.

“I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment. I grew up hunting and fishing,” Northam told reporters Monday morning at an event unrelated to gun policy. “Really what we’re trying to do in Virginia… is we want to make our streets, our communities safer.”

In addition to the mostly symbolic gun sanctuary resolutions being passed by county boards, some local law enforcement officials in conservative jurisdictions have said they’ll resist new gun laws passed in Richmond that they deem an infringement on gun rights.

Northam suggested Monday that those fears are unfounded.

“I hear people out there saying that they don’t want law enforcement to enforce unconstitutional laws. Well we’re not going to propose or pass any unconstitutional laws,” Northam said. “So that’s something we should all agree on.”

Mercury reporter Mechelle Hankerson contributed. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.