The Bulletin

Virginia General Assembly passes bills to require background checks on all gun sales, restore one-handgun-a-month law

By: - March 7, 2020 2:07 pm

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)

Two unresolved pieces of Gov. Ralph Northam’s gun policy agenda have cleared the Virginia General Assembly as the legislative session nears its end.

Legislation to require criminal background checks on all gun sales and restore the state’s former one-handgun-a-month rule won final approval Saturday in the state Senate.

The passage of the two bills means seven of the eight proposals Northam called for after last year’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach are heading to his desk to be signed.

“Today, this year, Virginia has said enough is enough. The emergency of gun violence must end. This legislation will help get us there,” Northam said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “Thank you to the many gun violence prevention advocates, some of you still grieving over the loss or injury of a loved one, who have fought for years for today. And thank you to the legislators who finally listened to the voices of Virginians and voted to pass commonsense gun safety legislation.”

Democratic legislators had been negotiating the finer points of the proposals. On both bills, the House of Delegates agreed to more moderate approaches favored by the Senate.

The background checks bill — a top priority Democrats and gun-control advocates have championed for years — would close the so-called gun show loophole that allows private gun sales without no criminal history check required for the buyer. The Northam administration and House Democrats preferred a broader version of the bill that would also cover gun transfers, which supporters said would avoid creating another loophole and reduce the number of guns changing hands with no regulatory oversight.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, had argued the House approach was too broad and could potentially trip up gun owners who lend or give a gun to someone else with no nefarious intent.

“Basically, they accepted our position,” Petersen said on the Senate floor Saturday.

One the new law is enacted, private sellers will be required to go through a licensed firearms dealer for a background check, ensuring a would-be buyer can legally own a firearm. Gun dealers would be allowed to charge a fee of up to $15 per for a check performed on a private seller’s behalf.

The second bill would restore the law limiting handgun purchase to one per month, a restriction supporters say will help crack down on gun trafficking to other states. The former law was in effect from 1993 to 2012.

The Senate insisted on including an exemption for concealed-carry permit holders. The legislature is also moving to tighten the process for getting a concealed carry permit by requiring applicants to complete an in-person gun safety course. Under current law, those courses could be taken online.

The other big-ticket gun bills that passed would require people to report stolen firearms, create extreme risk protective orders allowing authorities to temporarily sieze guns from people deemed a threat, give local governments more power to ban guns in public spaces, tighten laws designed to make guns inaccessible to children and prohibit gun possession by people who are subject to permanent protective orders.

A bill Northam backed that would have banned assault-style firearms failed in a Senate committee.

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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.