The Bulletin

Senate panel rejects bill stiffening penalties for letting minors access guns

By: - February 3, 2020 12:33 pm
Virginia State Capitol

The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A bill to toughen Virginia’s law against letting minors access loaded guns failed in a Senate committee Monday morning as two Democrats joined Republicans in blocking it.

Under current law, it’s a misdemeanor offense to “recklessly” leave a loaded, unsecured gun accessible to a child under 14. As drafted, Senate Bill 581, introduced by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, would have raised the age to 18 and made violations a felony offense.

Even after changes were made to keep the misdemeanor classification and add a clear exemption for youth hunting, the bill failed on a 7-8 vote.

Sens. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, and Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, voted with six Republicans to prevent the bill’s passage.

“We’ve done a lot with guns this session. A lot,” Petersen said. “I think we’re starting to get more into intra-family dynamics than we are firearms.”

The minor access bill is one of eight gun-control proposals supported by Gov. Ralph Northam. The House of Delegates passed its version of the bill on a 54-46 vote last week. But Monday’s Senate hearing showed the bill may not have the votes to pass the upper chamber.

In a statement, the governor’s office said the bill would have no impact on hunting.

“The governor thanks the House of Delegates for voting to pass their version of this bill,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky. “He looks forward to it continuing to move through the legislative process.”

Steve Benjamin, a Richmond defense lawyer who serves as counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the panel Monday that, under his interpretation, the bill wouldn’t criminalize teen hunting.

“If you have a very well-trained 15-year-old who can be entrusted with a loaded firearm, that is not what is prohibited by this statute,” Benjamin said.

Supporters have characterized the legislation as a way to prevent gun deaths among children and teenagers, particularly suicides carried out with firearms a parent didn’t keep in a safe place.

Howell said that the element of the bill that seems to have stoked the most debate — the recklessness standard — is a longstanding component of Virginia’s existing child access law.

“All that is really changing is the age to go from 14 to 18,” Howell said.

Opponents have warned the bill could have ramifications for teen hunting in rural areas where handling guns at an early age is more common and give prosecutors more leeway to charge parents after gun-related accidents.

“When my son was 16 he came home from school and thanks to having access to a firearm was able to interrupt wild dogs attacking our livestock,” said Will Shaw of Louisa County. “Under this law, I’d be risking a year behind bars for allowing him that access.”

Democrats have said anyone worried about being ensnared by the tougher law can just make sure they’re storing firearms safely.

“It would be left up to the discretion of that prosecutor whether or not your actions were actually reckless,” said Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, the sponsor of the House bill. “I would simply say: Don’t leave your loaded, unsecured firearms recklessly in the presence of minors.”

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.