Amid fiery speeches, Virginia Senate passes first batch of gun bills

By: - January 16, 2020 5:01 pm

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Richmond. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Senate passed an initial wave of gun bills Thursday amid denunciations from Republicans and assurances from Democrats that they were responding to voters’ demands for stronger firearm safety laws.

Two bills — one to restore the state’s previous one-handgun-a-month rule and another empowering local governments to ban guns in public buildings, parks and at permitted events like political protests — passed the Democratic-controlled chamber 21-19 along party lines.

The third, a bill requiring background checks for all gun sales, passed 23-17, with two Republicans voting with the Democratic majority.

Relegated to minority status in last year’s General Assembly elections, Republicans could do little but thunder against the legislation on the Senate floor.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is probably the first assault on the Second Amendment. And we’re going to see many after that,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, who argued the bill giving localities control over guns in public spaces would create “little pockets here and there where guns are good and guns are bad.”

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said the proposal would give local officials the option of restricting guns in certain areas to keep their residents safe, but doesn’t force any city or county government to do anything it doesn’t want to do.

“I think the public would be a lot better served if we toned down the hyperbole and focused on the facts,” Surovell said.

The tenor of the debate reflected the intense feelings surrounding gun issues as elected officials and law enforcement brace for what’s expected to be a heavily attended pro-gun rally at the Capitol Monday.

Democrats made gun safety a top campaign issue last year as they flipped control of the Senate and the House of Delegates, a power shift allowing gun-control bills to advance in a legislature where Republicans had routinely blocked them.

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired of gun violence,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who sponsored the bill restoring the one-handgun-a-month law that was in effect from 1993 to 2012.

The election outcome also led to a fierce backlash from gun-rights advocates and over 100 conservative-leaning localities that have declared themselves gun-rights sanctuaries.

The bills that passed the Senate were some of the less-controversial among the package of gun legislation lawmakers are considering. A bill to create a red flag law, which would empower authorities to seize guns from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others, has been tied up in the Senate. And neither chamber has taken up the contentious issue of banning assault weapons, which could come later in the session.

The House of Delegates has not yet taken up any gun legislation.

Though Democrats have pressed for universal background checks on gun sales and transfers, the proposal that passed the Senate had been watered down from its original form. The bill would apply to all sales, but would not apply to gun transfers where no money is exchanged. As drafted, the bill would have made violations a felony. But the version that passed the Senate reduced the penalty to a misdemeanor.

The proposal to let localities ban guns at public events gained prominence after the 2017 violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, where the city was unable to impose a gun ban despite anticipated clashes between opposing groups, with heavily armed self-styled militia groups on the scene as well. Though no one was injured by gunfire at that rally, a Ku Klux Klan leader from Maryland was later convicted for firing a gun in the direction of a black counter-protester who was wielding a makeshift blowtorch.

Republican senators said the proposed law would only soothe those who don’t like seeing guns in public and would not stop a bad actor intent on doing harm in a public place.

“This isn’t about safety. This is about feeling good,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, pointed out that there was a pro-Confederate rally in Richmond shortly after the 2017 Charlottesville rally that stirred fears of a repeat. While the state could ban guns on the state-owned circle surrounding the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, she said, the city had no such power over the surrounding residential streets.

“And our police chief was extraordinarily frustrated by that,” McClellan said.

Supporters of the one-handgun-a-month rules said it would crack down on straw purchases and Virginia-bought guns turning up at crime scenes in New York because of traffickers taking advantage of Virginia’s lenient laws.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, said 12 handguns in a one-year period should be plenty for anybody. In the 19 years the one-a-month law was in effect, Saslaw said, a person could have bought 228 handguns.

“I maintain that if 228 handguns isn’t enough for you, there’s something gone terribly wrong in your life,” Saslaw said.

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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. Contact him at [email protected]