The Bulletin

Va. Senate rejects bill to require background checks for gun rentals

By: - February 5, 2021 8:55 am

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A bill meant to prevent suicides at Virginia shooting ranges failed on the floor of the state Senate Thursday after a majority of senators decided it was unworkable.

The legislation, brought in response to the back-to-back suicides of two young men at a Hanover County shooting range, was sent back to a Senate committee by a 21-18 vote, effectively killing it for the year.

The proposal would have required state-level background checks for gun rentals starting in 2023. Several senators said they supported the intent of the bill, but doubted it could be effective because the state currently doesn’t have the infrastructure needed to perform the checks. Instead, they said, a provision in the state budget will direct the Virginia State Police to craft an alternative solution.

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, who made the motion to re-refer the bill to committee, said one of the suicide victims’ families lives in her district, so she is “very empathetic to finding a path forward.”

“It feels good to pass a bill that’s addressing an issue we’re concerned about,” Dunnavant said. “But it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t get the job done.”

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who sponsored the legislation, urged his colleagues to stick with the bill.

“I would argue that the bill, the way it’s drafted, will be effective,” Deeds said. “It can’t bring any of these young people back… but hopefully it can prevent some tragedies.”

Three Democrats — Sens. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, and Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, voted with the Senate’s 18 Republicans to defeat the measure.

Deeds acknowledged his proposal would require some “rejiggering” by the State Police, because federal law doesn’t require background checks for gun rentals. Because of that limitation, the state would essentially have to create its own background check process for gun rentals, one that would pull in state-level information on criminal convictions and mental health history.

Without getting into specifics of recent shooting range suicides, Dunnavant said she was doubtful the system envisioned by Deeds’ bill would have made a difference in many of those cases. Both men had been committed to mental institutions previously and their parents told NBC12 they would not have passed a background check. After speaking to the mother of one of the Richmond-area suicide victims, Dunnavant said, she agrees “there is a problem here that we do need to solve.”

“They were heartbroken that despite all of the precautions they had taken, the system didn’t work for them,” Dunnavant said. “I earnestly want to find a way to make this work. This bill, however, does not accomplish our goal.”

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who voted for the bill, said policymakers have to ensure the bureaucracy exists to support tighter gun laws passed by Democratic majorities. He said he recently tried to purchase a shotgun from a neighbor but had trouble getting a background check under the state’s new law requiring checks for private gun sales.

“We need to bring the State Police along with us,” he said. “Because we’re creating a lot of record-keeping requirements. And I don’t know if the infrastructure is there right now.”


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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. Contact him at [email protected]