Gov. Ralph Northam, flanked by incoming Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, outlines Democrats’ priorities for the 2020 legislative session on Jan. 7, 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Amid a conspiracy theory-tinged uproar over the possibility of Virginia passing new gun-control laws, pro-gun activists have scoured the state budget for evidence validating their fears about the government coming for their firearms.
But much of the pro-gun rhetoric surrounding Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget doesn’t match reality.
The two-year budget includes roughly $4 million to support 18 new Virginia State Police positions related to an assault weapon ban, a line item pro-gun groups have portrayed as an ominous sign of looming gun confiscation.
“The Virginia governor’s new budget reveals funding for a new team of anti-gun cops,” reads a headline on conservative website Liberty Nation.
“Gun owners want to know: Is this money going to be used for the gun confiscation that, in November, the governor said he was considering,” Gun Owners of America Senior Vice President Eric Pratt said in a news release urging supporters to pack the state’s budget hearings last week.
“It is not clear from the document what the precise function of these 18 government collaborators would be,” the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action said in a recent post.
According to the governor’s office, the funding is for administrative workers who would oversee the registration/permitting process Democrats are proposing to allow gun owners to keep firearms they already have. The 18 jobs mentioned in the budget are not trooper positions, said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky.
“These 18 positions are for administrative staff to process applications and background checks for Virginians who apply for a permit to retain assault firearms they currently own,” Yarmosky said. “Funding will also support the development of an IT system to manage applications and permits.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t be more sworn officers focusing on guns.
The budget proposal also includes roughly $6.5 million to convert 43 civilian workers who oversee the state’s sex offender registry into trooper positions, creating a new “combined sex offense and firearms investigation unit,” according to budget documents. It’s not clear how that unit would operate, but nothing in the budget suggests it would focus solely on enforcing an assault weapon ban.
Banning particular types of weaponry may be the most contentious of the gun-control proposals Democrats are expected to pursue using their new General Assembly majorities. Depending on how it plays out, the legislation could outlaw future sales of certain types of guns and affect the legal status of thousands of weapons Virginians already own.
Northam has said the proposal he supports will grandfather in existing guns that meet the assault weapon definition. But gun owners would have to register them with the state, a requirement gun-rights activists adamantly oppose and see as a step toward future gun seizures.
Northam’s professed support for a grandfather clause hasn’t stopped the proliferation of online conspiracy theories suggesting the state government is preparing to confiscate guns en masse. During a news conference at the Capitol Tuesday, Northam addressed some of those theories head-on.
“We ask that the discussion be civil and based in fact, not misinformation and intimidation,” Northam said. “We have no intention of calling out the National Guard. We’re not going to cut off people’s electricity. We’re not going to go door-to-door and confiscate individuals’ weapons. We are going to pass common-sense legislation that will keep guns out of dangerous hands.”
In total, Northam has proposed $7.6 million to implement new gun laws. But the price tag will depend largely on what bills have passed when the session, which starts Wednesday, ends in mid-March.
In addition to the assault weapon ban, Democrats want to enact universal background checks, create a red flag law that would let authorities take guns from people deemed dangerous and reinstate a one-handgun-a-month law.
Northam’s budget includes an additional $3.6 million to implement the other gun measures and a bill dealing with background checks for student loan servicers.
Pro-gun organizers think they have a shot at stopping some bills in the state Senate, where Democrats have a slim, 21-19 majority and several moderates within their ranks.
“Most of these bills are going to pass,” said soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax. “I don’t know if every single one will, but most are going to pass.”
Northam’s budget proposal includes $250,000 to cover a possible increase in the number of people imprisoned under the new laws. Some conservative outlets have characterized that money as a sign the state is preparing for a mass jailing of gun owners.
That overlooks the fact that the extra prison funding arises from a routine budgetary practice.
Under state law, any criminal justice-related legislation that could increase prison populations has to include an estimate of how much it might cost the state.
When the fiscal impact is undetermined because the state doesn’t have a solid estimate of how many people might break a new or expanded law, the bills get tagged with a $50,000 minimum cost estimate.
The Northam administration arrived at the $250,000 estimate by attaching the standard $50,000 appropriation to five separate gun proposals.
Among the bills that had the same $50,000 price tag last year were proposals to boost criminal penalties for drunk boating, timber theft and threatening a family member over the phone.
NRA representatives working in Virginia said this week that they and their Republican allies may push to attach more precise cost estimates to the bills, which they believe could cost the state significantly more. D.J. Spiker, Virginia director for NRA-ILA, said the $50,000 estimates are so low “it boggles the mind.”
Mercury reporter Ned Oliver contributed.
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