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)
As Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, pitched a Republican-led subcommittee last week on his proposed law requiring gun owners to lock up their firearms and ammunition if there are children in the home, he raised his index finger in the air and began a visual demonstration.
He pressed his fingertip to the biometric gun safe on the podium in front of him, showing the audience the safe would quickly open for him and no one else. For gun owners who have hundreds of dollars to spend on a weapon, Simon said, a secure storage device that can be bought online for $60 wouldn’t be an overly expensive proposition.
“It’s a pretty simple thing to ask people to do,” said Simon. “I will point out that we have seatbelt laws, we have bicycle helmet laws, we have life jacket laws. All designed to protect children.”
Gun-rights groups felt it wasn’t so simple.
In testimony on Simon’s bill and a similar proposal in the state Senate, Philip Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, raised doubts about whether there are safes big enough to hold all the ammo he and other gun owners keep on hand. He also argued some minors can be safely trained to access a firearm to help with home defense.
“One size does not fit all,” Van Cleave said last week before GOP lawmakers voted to kill Simon’s bill. “There are a lot of teenagers that have had a lot of education on guns. They know safety.”
Several bills dealing with safe gun storage were filed for the Virginia General Assembly’s 2023 session after a Newport News elementary school teacher was shot by a 6-year-old student with a gun the boy allegedly got from home. But even if the bills pass the Democratic Senate, they appear doomed to failure based on recent no votes in Republican-controlled committees in the House of Delegates.
“They don’t even want to hold irresponsible gun owners accountable,” Lori Haas, Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said Monday afternoon after the bills’ fate became clear.
Democrats have urged their colleagues to do more to address an increase in gun-related deaths among children and teenagers, arguing that, regardless of enforcement, tougher laws could raise awareness of the importance of safe gun storage. Republicans have argued adding new layers of gun control won’t work, because the state already has laws that can be used against negligent or reckless gun owners. A breakthrough gun-control package Virginia Democrats passed in 2020 included a bill strengthening penalties for adults who “recklessly” leave a loaded firearm accessible to minors under the age of 14.
“I just think sometimes we overthink all of this and we go too far,” House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, said after voting against several storage bills.
The Newport News incident made national headlines and has renewed debate over when and how gun owners should be held accountable if they fail to keep a firearm away from a child. Authorities and experts have indicated the boy is too young to be charged criminally, and charges have not been filed against the parents.
“We have a crime that has a victim and no perpetrator,” Andrew Goddard, a gun-control advocate with the Virginia Center for Public Safety, said of the classroom shooting as he testified in favor of a bill making it easier to file a civil lawsuit against a child’s parents if the child causes harm with a gun. That bill also failed Monday on a party-line vote.
Though gun-rights supporters quibbled with the storage rules laid out in proposals mandating specific security precautions, they also took exception to a narrower approach that would let authorities hold gun owners responsible only if a minor accesses a firearm and uses it to commit a violent crime or hurt themself or others, or takes it onto school property. The sponsor of the bill, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, said his proposal would still leave gun owners the flexibility to decide what gun safety measures are appropriate for their own home.
At a hearing Monday, VanValkenburg argued his bill aligns with Gov. Glenn Youngkin and other Republicans’ position that the law should target actual gun crimes rather than creating new burdens for law-abiding, responsible gun owners.
“I think this extends to adults who irresponsibility let minors access their firearms,” said VanValkenburg, a Henrico County school teacher.
VanValkenburg said he amended his bill from its original version to address concerns it could get parents in legal trouble if a child was caught with a gun while committing a minor offense like jaywalking. The amended version, he added, would also free parents from liability in cases of hunting accidents involving minors.
The changes didn’t sway Republican lawmakers on the subcommittee.
Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, suggested the Newport News shooting has more to do with the alleged failures of school officials to take warnings about the boy seriously than it does with any glaring holes in the state’s gun laws.
“There’s this belief that when there’s a tragedy that we can pass a law and we can prevent that,” said Anderson, who owns a gun shop. “These types of laws aren’t going to fix what the victims in here are upset about.”
Jonathan Bremer, the father of a 13-year-old Henrico girl who was shot to death by another student in 2021 using a handgun that belonged to his legal guardian, urged lawmakers to support the bill. He said the death of his daughter, Lucia Bremer, was partly the result of a “serious miscalculation” by adults in the shooter’s life.
“I am often asked about what punishment the gun owner received. I share with them that the gun owner does not seem to have broken any laws,” Bremer said. “Each time I share that piece of information, it is just as shocking to them as it was to me and my wife and boys the first time we heard it.”
The teenager who killed Lucia Bremer recently pleaded guilty to first-degree murder ahead of a scheduled jury trial, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He has not yet been sentenced.
The boy’s guardian was prosecuted on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A judge found the guardian not guilty after concluding prosecutors had failed to provide sufficient evidence of a crime.
One gun storage bill that hasn’t been heard yet may have a chance at winning bipartisan support. Legislation filed by Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, would create a new state income tax credit allowing taxpayers to write off the purchase of “firearm safety devices” such as gun safes and lockboxes. If that bill passes, filers could claim a credit of up to $300 per year.
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