One day after the big gun rally, House Democrats wipe out GOP firearm bills

By: - January 21, 2020 12:28 pm

Rally attendees packed the streets around the Capitol by mid morning Monday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The pro-gun masses had their day at the Virginia Capitol Monday. But mathematical reality quickly set in Tuesday morning as a Democratic-led House of Delegates panel easily dispatched nearly a dozen Republican-sponsored gun bills.

The proposals would have made it easier to carry guns in places of worship, allowed concealed carry without a permit, limited gun-free zones and strengthened mandatory sentencing rules for gun crimes. They hit a legislative buzzsaw in a public safety subcommittee, just as Democratic-sponsored gun-control bills did when Republicans controlled the General Assembly.

“Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be the first to go down for the cause,” said Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, after he saw two of his bills — which would have created legal protections for hunters who unknowingly cross county lines — get rejected in less than 10 minutes.

In addition to the tensions stoked by Monday’s rally, Tuesday’s hearing came amid fraught relations between the House’s new Democratic leaders and the Republican minority. Last week, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, took to the floor to accuse Democrats of sluggishness and incompetence, saying the body had been too slow to begin taking up legislation. Democrats bristled at the suggestion, saying they were doing all they could to manage the leadership transition and get the business of the House moving.

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, who spoke up for many of the gun bills killed by the subcommittee mostly along party lines, complained at one point that his Democratic colleagues weren’t allowing enough time for discussion on individual bills.

“I think we just heard on the floor the other day that Democrats were slow to get the work done,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, the subcommittee chairman.

Among the issues the subcommittee took up were:

Guns in churches

Three Republican lawmakers — Dels. John McGuire, R-Goochland, Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun and Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg — presented bills to repeal a state law that bans guns, knives and other weapons in places of worship during religious ceremonies without “good and sufficient reason.” The practical impact of that law is unclear. In 2011, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli opined that self-defense was a good reason. Nevertheless, Republicans have been trying to get rid of it for years.

Several Republican speakers pointed to last month’s church shooting in Texas, where dramatic video showed an armed member of the congregation take down a would-be mass shooter within seconds of the shooter opening fire, though not before the assailant fatally wounded two people.

“People will go anywhere, anytime to implement their evil,” said Del. John McGuire, R-Goochland, who named his bill to repeal the law after Jack Wilson, the Texas churchgoer widely hailed as a hero. Wilson — a firearms instructor and former reserve sheriff’s deputy — was a member of the church’s volunteer security team.

Gun-control groups and Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration opposed the bill.

Andrew Goddard, legislative director for the Virginia Center for Public Safety, said nothing in state law prevents religious institutions from hiring trained professionals to secure their buildings. What happened in Texas, he said, was “a clear example of a hero preventing a mass shooting,” but the video also showed one security volunteer being shot first and numerous other worshipers drawing handguns.

“He was one of two people there specifically to do that,” Goddard said of Wilson. “He was a very well-trained person.”

The bills failed 5-3, with all Democrats on the panel voting against and all Republicans voting in favor.

Limiting gun-free zones after Virginia Beach

In poignant testimony, Jason Nixon, whose wife, Kate, was killed during last year’s shooting at a municipal building in Virginia Beach, urged lawmakers to pass legislation to make it easier for victims to sue localities that create gun-free zones but fail to take steps to secure those areas. Nixon has said his wife, a public utilities engineer, considered taking a gun to work to protect herself from the co-worker who became the shooter, but decided against it due to the city of Virginia Beach’s policy barring guns in the workplace.

“She obeyed the laws. She obeyed the rules,” Nixon said. “And she’s dead now.”

Nixon, who said he wasn’t particularly political and also supports legislation banning silencers, was speaking in favor of bills that would waive sovereign immunity for acts of violence committed in gun-free zones imposed by the state or local governments.

Supporters of the bills said that if governments take away a person’s right to arm themselves, they should be held responsible for that person’s safety, even it means costly lawsuits.

“Is my wife’s murder frivolous?” Nixon asked. “Is that frivolous to you? Is that frivolous to anybody?”

Jason Nixon, whose wife was killed in the 2019 mass shooting in Virginia Beach, addresses state lawmakers Tuesday. (Graham Moomaw / Virginia Mercury)

Gun-control advocates said that rather than pushing for easier legal restitution for victims after a shooting has occurred, the state should be taking steps to prevent gun violence from happening in the first place.

Lori Haas,  the Virginia director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, whose daughter was wounded in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, became emotional as she responded to Nixon’s pleas.

“I have the utmost sympathy and compassion for every family in the commonwealth that lives with this scourge every single day,” Haas said. “There have been families in this building pleading for years to have this issue addressed.”

The subcommittee voted 6-2 to table the bills as Democrats were joined by first-term Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield. But several lawmakers said they’d continue to work on a possible solution as the session progresses, possibly by amending a separate bill giving local governments power to restrict firearms in public buildings.

“We’re open to having that conversation as a compromise,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News.

Coyner said that, as a former county supervisor, she couldn’t agree with the exact text of the bills. But she voiced support for the concept generally, saying the risk of lawsuits can be a powerful motivator for local governments to act.

Another bill requiring local governments to allow employees to bring concealed handguns to work, as long as they have a permit, failed 5-3.

Stiffer penalties for gun crimes

Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin, presented a bill increasing mandatory minimum sentences for felonies involving a firearm.

His proposal, which failed on party lines, would have increased the minimum sentence for a first offense from three to five years and boosted sentences for subsequent offenses from five years to 10 years.

“This gives our prosecutors and our police an excellent tool to use to address those people that really use guns in an illegal fashion,” Poindexter said. “It focuses on gun violence itself.”

Poindexter pointed specifically to Project Exile, a law enforcement initiative to reduce gun deaths in Richmond by strengthening criminal penalties.

Bourne said those policies had a “significant impact on communities of color,” and gun-control advocates argued mandatory minimums have little impact on deterring crime.

Constitutional carry

A bill to eliminate the requirement that Virginians get a permit to carry a concealed handgun got nowhere with the subcommittee, dying 6-2 with Coyner again voting with democrats.

McGuire, who is seeking the GOP nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico, sponsored the bill allowing permit-free concealed carry.

“For some reason we trust you to open carry but we don’t trust you to carry in your purse. Which is kind of crazy,” McGuire said.

Opponents of the bill said the permitting process doesn’t pose a significant burden but allows the authorities to look into people before giving them a green light to carry unseen weapons.

“Does the concealed carry permitting process preclude someone from carrying a weapon for protection?” Price asked.

“No,” McGuire responded.

‘Thoughts and prayers’ 

Some gun-rights activists in the audience audibly scoffed at the proceedings, particularly when Bourne said his “thoughts and prayers” were with Nixon.

“I find it fascinating that you want to offer Mr. Nixon thoughts and prayers,” said Bob Sadtler, a Richmond resident and activist affiliated with the Virginia Citizens Defense League. “Because when your opponents were in charge, that was hollow, meaningless rhetoric and an insult.”

Speaking to reporters afterward, Bourne said the new Democratic majorities will take real action when they take up Democratic-sponsored bills later in the session.

“We are going to do more than thoughts and prayers,” Bourne said. “We’re going to give votes and w’ere going to pass laws that are truly going to make Virginians safer.”

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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.