Gun groups sue to block Virginia’s new one-handgun-a-month law

By: - June 15, 2020 12:22 pm

A potential buyer checks out a gun which is displayed on an exhibitor’s table during the Nation’s Gun Show on November 18, 2016, at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Gun-rights activists have filed a lawsuit seeking to block the implementation of a Virginia law limiting handgun purchases to one per month.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League and Gun Owners of America filed the challenge last week in Goochland County Circuit Court. 

Valerie Trojan, a Goochland resident and member of the two pro-gun groups who says she wants to buy multiple handguns a month from a local gun store after the law takes effect July 1, is also named as a plaintiff in the case, as is the gun shop, Brothers N Arms.

The one-handgun-a-month law was part of the package of major firearm bills Virginia Democrats passed earlier this year after taking full control of the General Assembly for the first time in decades after making gun violence a top campaign issue. Republicans denounced many of the proposals as unconstitutional and predicted they would be challenged in court.

Virginia had a one-handgun-a-month law on the books from 1993 to 2012, when former Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a bill repealing it.

The policy was pitched as a way to reduce gun trafficking, preventing straw purchasers from buying large numbers of handguns then distributing them to states with stricter gun laws. A 1995 study by the Virginia State Crime Commission found that the law largely worked as intended, dropping Virginia from first to eighth in federal rankings of East Coast states that export guns used in crimes elsewhere.

The recently passed legislation, which takes effect July 1, includes an exemption for the hundreds of thousands of Virginians who have an active concealed carry permit.

The lawsuit filed in Goochland appears to be the first of what could be several legal challenges to the new gun laws signed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

In it, the plaintiffs argue the policy is an overbroad solution to gun trafficking, limiting the rights of normal gun enthusiasts in an attempt to crack down on activity that’s already illegal.

“Plaintiff Trojan does not wish to return multiple times to the same store, fill out the same paperwork, and engage in the same often delayed and time-consuming background check, dragging out her purchase over the course of months, and impairing her constitutionally protected right to obtain firearms,” the lawsuit states.

The suit claims the law violates the section of the Virginia Constitution dealing with the right to “keep and bear arms.” The complaint draws parallels to other constitutional rights like free speech, saying limiting bulk handgun purchases is like “limiting persons to purchasing one Bible per month.”

“It would be unfathomable if the General Assembly attempted to place limits on how many times per week a newspaper could be published, how many abortions a woman could receive in a decade, or how many times a court-appointed criminal defense lawyer could be appointed for an indigent defendant facing jailable offenses during a lifetime, to name but a few illustrative examples of this problem,” the filing states.

Since the first iteration of one-handgun-a-month in Virginia, the suit claims, the legal landscape has shifted due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 decision finding an individual right to keep firearms. The suit also argues the government has no factual basis for the assertion that limiting handgun purchases is necessary to curb gun trafficking.

The suit names Col. Gary T. Settle, the superintendent of the Virginia State Police, as the defendant. His agency will be responsible for administering the law if it takes effect next month as planned.

A hearing in the case has been scheduled for June 25.

Attorney General Mark Herring’s office said it will defend the law in court, calling it “extremely successful in keeping a large number of firearms off our streets.”

“Both this law and the other gun violence prevention measures that were passed during this year’s legislative session are constitutional and Attorney General Herring is prepared to go to court to defend their constitutionality,” said Herring spokeswoman Charlotte Gomer. “These measures were put in place to keep Virginians and their communities and loved ones safe and that is Attorney General Herring’s top priority.”

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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.