Men hold signs and flags during a pro-gun rally in Richmond on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Just like last year, the Virginia General Assembly’s 2021 session began with a show of force from gun-rights supporters in downtown Richmond.
And just like last year, Democrats still have full control. And they’re still looking to fix up what they see as weak spots in the law after taking power from pro-gun Republicans in the 2019 elections.
Many top gun-control priorities — like expanded background checks, a red flag law and a one-handgun-a-month rule — were approved last year. That’s meant the new round of gun legislation has been somewhat lower profile, but there are several significant bills working their way through the two chambers.
Background checks at shooting ranges
Last summer, a young man went to the Green Top Shooting Range in Hanover County, rented a gun, and used it to end his life. Five days later, another man did the same thing.
Their families are now working with Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who has made mental health and suicide prevention a top priority after tragedy struck his own family, to pass a law requiring a background check before anyone would be handed a gun at a shooting range.
At a committee hearing, Deeds said both men had mental health issues. Research on suicides, he said, suggests it’s often carefully planned, and a background check could be an obstacle that might have changed the outcome.
“Anything you do to interrupt that plan may end up saving that person’s life,” Deeds.
The idea has technical limitations. Federal law doesn’t require shooting ranges to conduct background checks for gun rentals, so range operators wouldn’t have access to the same federal database used for gun sales. But supporters of the bill say the Virginia State Police background check system can be used instead, though the agency would likely require some additional funding to handle the increased workload. The State Police estimate the bill would mean 200 additional background checks per day.
Opponents of the proposal argue it’s unworkable, saying it would create an onerous new process for shooting ranges that could discourage gun buyers from seeking hands-on safety training.
D.J. Spiker, Virginia director for the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, said range suicides are “exceptionally rare.”
“’It’s best left to ranges and Virginia State Police to come up with in-house policies to regulate this,” Spiker said.
That approach wasn’t enough for Bradley Carroll, the father of one of the men who died by suicide at the Hanover gun range.
“The opposition will tell you that they acknowledge the issue but offer no solutions,” he said.
The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 10-4-1 and was referred to the Finance Committee for a closer look at its fiscal implications.
Gun ban at state Capitol grounds
The House has taken up a bill that would ban guns and stun weapons on the grounds of the Capitol and surrounding streets, a proposal that would codify statehouse rules and temporary gun bans that have been enacted in response to armed protesters.
The ban would apply inside the Capitol building, within Capitol Square and on directly adjacent streets and sidewalks legislators frequently use.
At the bill’s initial hearing, Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, its patron, said it would prevent future occurrences of armed extremist groups demonstrating near the Capitol. Those groups are free to challenge the General Assembly’s decisions, Levine said, but they shouldn’t be allowed to do it with weapons.
“What they don’t have a right to do is to try to intimidate us into voting the way they want using guns,” Levine said. “That is not a proper use of guns.”
The pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League has held armed rallies at the Capitol for years, an annual event often attended by Republican politicians. But the two that have been held since Democrats took control have drawn a different crowd. More than 20,000 people attended the rally in early 2020, many of them with military-style gear and weaponry. This year’s event was much smaller due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of permits, but it still attracted several gun-toting fringe groups.
Opponents contend the bill is overbroad and unnecessary.
“There hasn’t been any violence in the area to justify this,” said VCDL President Philip Van Cleave.
The bill also covers state buildings beyond the Capitol complex, a more permanent continuation of gun bans Gov. Ralph Northam and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe enacted through executive orders.
A similar bill has been filed in the Senate, but it would not extend the ban to the streets and sidewalks around the Capitol.
Gun bans at polling places
Firearms are already banned in schools and some other facilities used as polling places, but it depends on what type of building it is and what the gun policies of the building owner are.
A bill already approved by the House would ban guns within 40 feet of all polling places, with exceptions for police and armed security officers and anyone who lives next to a polling place and has a gun on their own property.
“We want people to be able to be free to vote without intimidation,” said Levine, the bill’s sponsor.
A Republican activist from Hopewell made headlines in 2018 for staging an armed protest outside the local registrar’s office, where absentee voting was taking place. Amid the conspiratorial atmosphere following the 2020 presidential election, two Virginia men were arrested and charged with weapons offenses after driving to a Philadelphia vote-counting center.
The ban would also apply at electoral board meetings dealing with election results or recounts.
Republican lawmakers have pointed out that the bill makes no exception for concealed carry. Guns others can’t see, argued Del. Les Adams, R-Rockbridge, aren’t a tool of voter intimidation, which is already illegal.
“That justification is the only justification,” Adams said.
Group violence prevention
Several Republican-sponsored gun bills, many of them exempting concealed carry permit holders from new restrictions, have already gone down in defeat. One that has not is GOP House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert’s bill dealing with an all-too-common form of gun violence that rarely draws the same type of outrage as mass shootings.
Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, has filed legislation to bolster group violence intervention programs, or community-based efforts to deter shootings involving gangs or other groups most at risk of violence.
“Young men of color in urban areas are 11 times more likely to die by violence and firearms than young White men who don’t live in these areas,” Gilbert. “These young men are dying senselessly and needlessly. And they don’t have to.”
Gilbert’s bill would create a Group Violence Intervention Board and a Division of Group Violence Intervention within the Department of Criminal Justice Services. The board would be tasked with applying for federal grants to fund Virginia programs similar to Boston’s Operation Ceasefire, an initiative that dramatically reduced youth homicides in that city by providing resources to people trying to transition out of gang life and warning others that further acts of violence would be harshly punished.
David M. Kennedy, co-founder of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and one of the creators of Operation Ceasefire, spoke in support of Gilbert’s bill, saying it attempted to solve an “appalling problem.”
“It’s one of the most grievous demonstrations of racial inequity that we have in our democracy,” Kennedy said. “The fact that decade in and decade out and year in and year out, we take it for granted that young men of color will die and die and die and die. And we do not do anything about it.”
A similar bill failed in 2019, but several Democrats said they were largely supportive of Gilbert’s measure this year as it passed a subcommittee by a 5-1 vote with two abstentions. They said they want to work to modify the bill to require more community involvement on the six-person board that, as proposed, is weighted toward law enforcement.
Del. Joshua Cole, D-Stafford, noted that President Joe Biden was ultimately criticized for his role in passing the 1994 crime bill even though, at the time, it was supported by “a lot of pastors and Black grandmothers” who wanted to see something done about crime in their neighborhoods.
“We have to be very, very clean and clear when we create this and we do this,” Cole said. “We want it to protect communities. But we don’t want it to turn into something different down the road that can hurt us.”
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, was the only Democrat who opposed the bill outright in the subcommittee. He said he’d like to see a more “holistic” approach that takes into account larger problems like poverty and underfunding of schools.
“This bill is built upon a premise that we as an authoritarian state with law enforcement first will be the beginning of this conversation,” said Rasoul, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.
With Virginia’s laws on gun purchases getting tougher, some policymakers are concerned about the rise of homemade guns.
A bill advancing in the House would ban untraceable “ghost” guns, or home-assembled firearms, and plastic firearms made with 3D printers.
“There’s really no reason not to serialize your gun unless you’re trying to evade background checks,” Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, the bill’s patron, said during a subcommittee hearing.
Opponents said the bill unfairly criminalize hobbyists who enjoy do-it-yourself gun projects.
“You’re treading in an area that’s extremely technical,” said Van Cleave.
Closing the ‘Charleston loophole’
When the shooter who massacred nine people in 2015 at a Black church in Charleston, S.C., tried to buy a handgun, a drug offense should have prevented the sale from going through, according to the FBI.
But because gun sales can proceed if a background check hasn’t been completed after three days, the purchase went through. Gun-control advocates have dubbed that the “Charleston loophole,” saying background checks should be allowed to take longer if it means authorities will make more thorough decisions about whether the buyer is barred from having a gun.
Legislation pending in the House would increase the maximum window for State Police background checks from three business days to five business days, allowing more time for the check to go through instead of the buyer getting the gun by default.
Gun-rights groups contend the Charleston case was more about authorities botching Roof’s paperwork and wasn’t a simple question of how much time was spent on his case. Opponents have argued longer background checks would overburden the system and prevent people from being able to buy guns in a timely manner.
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