Va. Senate committee blocks assault weapon bill; four Democrats vote to push it to 2021

By: - February 17, 2020 9:42 am

A proposed assault weapons ban cleared a House subcommittee Friday. This AK-47-style rifle, with a drum magazine that the owner said could hold more than 40 rounds, was carried it at the Jan. 20 pro-gun rally at the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A Virginia Senate committee voted down an assault weapon bill Monday morning, blocking the most contentious piece of the Democratic gun control agenda.

The bill — which would have banned future sales of assault weapons and outlawed magazines capable of holding more than 12 rounds — had already been watered down from its original form in order to pass the House of Delegates.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s 10-5 vote confirmed the more moderate upper chamber had little appetite to impose new regulations on the type of weaponry Virginians can legally buy.

After the vote, gun-rights advocates who had packed the room broke into cheers, and some gun-control supporters vented about Democrats lacking the courage to see the bill through.

Democrats won majorities in both General Assembly chambers last year after making gun control a marquee campaign issue. But the party never seemed to find consensus on how to define and regulate assault weapons. A bill to impose a sweeping ban on possession of assault weapons was pulled from consideration by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and the bill being considered Monday had undergone significant revisions to get as far as it did.

The split opinions were evident at Monday’s committee hearing as five Democrats tried to keep the bill alive and four Democrats voted to stop it, at least for a while.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, suggested postponing consideration of the bill for a year and having the Virginia State Crime Commission study its definitions of what qualifies as an assault weapon. Deeds was joined by three other Democrats — Sens. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and John Edwards, D-Roanoke — in voting for the motion to continue the bill to 2021.

“We passed a lot of gun bills this year,” Deeds said. “There are obviously a lot of questions about definitions in this bill. And definitions do matter.”

The bill would have defined assault weapons as any semi-automatic rifle or pistol with a fixed magazine capacity of more than 12 rounds or a semi-automatic weapon capable of accepting a detachable magazine that has one or more additional military-style characteristics, such as a folding or telescoping stock, a second grip, a grenade or flare launcher or a silencer. The bill would have applied to shotguns with revolving cylinders or a fixed magazine capacity of more than seven rounds.

Gun proponents had called the definitions overbroad, saying they would affect popular firearms owned by countless Virginians.

Edwards, the committee chairman, said there “a whole series of issues” with the bill that needed to be addressed.

“We didn’t think there was time to do it. We thought we needed a good year to sort through all the issues,” Edwards said, adding that he was particularly concerned about defining what an assault weapon is and figuring out what to do if someone doesn’t comply with the proposed law.

Other Democrats were frustrated at seeing the effort get shut down for the year.

“I didn’t have enough people who had enough backbone to do what two million voters asked us to do,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth. “They sent us here to vote for good, common sense gun measures. And they wimped out and were just too afraid to do it.”

Lucas said she felt some of her colleagues were intimidated by the “loud group of people sitting out there.”

“They should’ve just followed me. They can stand behind me,” Lucas said. “Do I look like I’m scared?”

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax,  issued a statement criticizing the Senate panel’s decision.

“The Democratic platform last fall was very clear. Limiting access to weapons of war used in mass murder was a key part of that platform,” Filler-Corn said. “The House of Delegates delivered on our promise to take action to keep those weapons off our streets. To call today’s vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee a disappointment would be an understatement.”

A handful of Democrats also opposed the bill when it passed the House last week on a 51-48 vote.

The bill also had the support of Gov. Ralph Northam. At Monday’s hearing, Brian Moran, Northam’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, said the legislation had been “mischaracterized.”

“It does not amount to a gun grab,” Moran said. “It is not registration. It is not unconstitutional. It does not make our fellow Virginians felons overnight.”

In a statement, Northam’s office said he was disappointed with the vote but expects a “detailed review” before the 2021 session.

Several gun control proponents, including multiple parents of victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, said the bill would save lives.

“What else can we say to you?” said Lori Haas, the Virginia director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence whose daughter was wounded in the Virginia Tech shooting. “People are dying, and you care more about a piece of hardware.”

The legislation also would have imposed new restrictions on silencers and banned bump stocks, devices meant to allow semi-automatic firearms to fire at a faster rate, mimicking automatic gunfire.

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, the bill’s patron, said the weapons he had in mind are “a real danger” and unnecessary for hunting or home defense.

“If you’re using these guns for self-defense in your home, I guess you’ll only be in trouble if 13 people come to burglarize your home in the middle of the night,” Levine sad.

As drafted, the bill would have required Virginians who already own assault weapons to register them with the state for a $50 fee. That provision was later removed, allowing those who already own assault weapons to keep them without taking any additional action. But pro-gun advocates said the end result was still unworkable.

D.J. Spiker, Virginia director for the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, said that because the bill would have made it a felony to “import” an assault weapon, someone taking their gun on an out-of-state hunting trip would potentially violate the law by bringing it home.

“It has unfortunately turned into a Frankenstein,” Spiker said of the bill.

Though blocking the assault weapon bill was a top priority for pro-gun groups, other high-profile gun bills are well on their way to Northam’s desk. Both chambers have passed bills to require background checks on all gun sales, create risk protection orders that would allow authorities to temporarily seize guns from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others and give cities, counties and towns more power to impose local gun restrictions.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, said his group will continue to fight all of the legislation.

“This is a great victory on one bill,” he said. “It’s one battle in a war.”

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.