A Virginia gun bill had support from gun-control groups and the NRA. It still failed.

Legislature fails to tighten law against guns with destroyed serial numbers

By: - March 15, 2022 12:03 am

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)

At a legislative hearing last month, something so unusual happened some in the room joked it should go down as an important moment in history: The NRA and gun-control groups agreed a Democratic gun bill was good enough to make it through a Republican committee.

“So Jesus is coming any minute,” quipped Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, as the committee advanced the bill creating clearer punishments for people caught with firearms that have been made untraceable by having their serial numbers filed off.

But the miracle turned out to be a mirage.

The bill had passed both legislative chambers in some form, but efforts to reach a final deal broke down last week as lawmakers realized they couldn’t agree after all, even on a relatively small tweak to the state’s gun laws.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said the conference committee of six lawmakers working on the bill had failed to produce a final version.

State law already makes it a misdemeanor offense to remove a firearm’s serial number or other identifying marks. But, according to the bill’s backers, authorities were having a hard time proving who exactly had done the removing. 

“If somebody’s found with the gun that’s had the serial number clearly filed right off, you’ve got to prove that they’re the one that did it,” Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said while presenting his bill to expand and clarify the law. “And that’s the problem that commonwealth’s attorneys have had.”

The proposed law made it a violation to “knowingly” possess or sell a gun defaced in a way that prevents authorities from tracking its origin or ownership history. It would’ve brought state law more in line with federal law, which already makes deliberately unmarked guns illegal as long as authorities can prove a tie to interstate commerce.

Republican legislators had tried to fine-tune the proposal to create more legal protections for gun owners. Democrats felt those changes would defeat the bill’s purpose, leaving prosecutors with a law that would be too difficult to apply since the offense often involves someone deliberately trying to hide their tracks.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, testified for the bill in legislative hearings, suggesting it would clean up a clunky, outdated law that could potentially get gun owners in trouble for inadvertent damage to their firearm.

“If you were hunting and your gun fell and it scratched across barbed wire that would deface it,” Van Cleave said. He also applauded a carveout in the bill that exempts antique firearms, suggesting someone might want to scratch a Nazi emblem off a World War II-era pistol.

As of Monday, the website for VCDL, which organizes and hosts pro-gun demonstrations in Richmond each year, still listed the serial-number bill among legislative proposals it supports.

Andrew Goddard, a gun-control advocate with the Virginia Center for Public Safety, told legislators making guns untraceable should be a “serious offense.”

“We don’t want to have burner firearms,” Goddard said. “We don’t want a firearm that someone can use and drop and walk away and never be caught for that offense.”

Though a misdemeanor charge for altered serial numbers can be tacked on to other gun crimes, legislative researchers identified 28 cases over the last five years where it was the most serious offense someone was convicted of. Nearly 40 percent of those offenders didn’t get jail time. The rest served a median sentence of about 15 days.

The version of the bill filed in the Republican-led House of Delegates sailed through in a 94-3-1 vote, inspiring jokes on the floor about how a gun bill with unusually broad political support might scramble post-session legislative scorecards on gun issues.

The bill filed in the Democratic Senate, which differed from the House version’s misdemeanor punishments by making it a felony to give, sell or distribute firearms with missing serial numbers, drew stronger GOP opposition during debate on the floor.

Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, raised concerns that anyone who wanted to put a Teflon coating on a gun to change its color could potentially face criminal charges if it obscured the gun’s identifying marks.

“Some of us really like our different colors,” DeSteph said. “And that’s OK.”

DeSteph offered his own version of the bill that would’ve required prosecutors to prove a serial number was “willfully” destroyed or tampered with.

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said that change would still leave prosecutors having to determine and prove the motives of whoever changed the gun instead of being able to charge the person who currently has it.

“The changer is likely to be a mystery,” Ebbin said during the Senate debate. Ebbin’s bill cleared the Senate on a 21-19, party-line vote, but stalled in the House.

By the time Ebbin’s bill got back to the subcommittee chaired by Freitas, some House Republicans said they now saw problems with the proposal that weren’t apparent when they approved Simon’s bill.

Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge, said he “forgot” he has a shotgun that was damaged by a rock when he fell off a log that had fallen across a creek.

“I’ve got two numbers on that gun that are pretty much destroyed. So I would have an illegal shotgun at this point,” Campbell said, referring to the implications of the proposed law.

Ebbin told Campbell his shotgun might already be a problem under federal law. If Campbell was concerned about it, Ebbin said, he could go to a gun store and have new serial numbers applied.

“I think guns falling on rocks and having their serial numbers defaced is perhaps an unusual one-off situation,” Ebbin said. “We were targeting criminals.”

In response to questions from the Mercury, Freitas,said the conference committee deliberating on the bill ran into “issues with how broadly it was written,” with Republicans trying to “limit it to deliberate destruction of serial numbers and sale.”

In an interview Monday, Simon said the main sticking point for the conference committee was whether the bill should also outlaw possession as well as the transfer and selling of such weapons.

“They wanted to get rid of all the possession pieces and just leave us with the parts that they like,” Simon said. “That’s not really a compromise anymore.”

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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.