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Va. Senate committee strikes ‘assault weapons’ bill, advances other proposed gun laws

A vendor looks on as a customer handles a scoped rifle at a gun show on Sunday, March 25. A majority of vendors, including the one pictured, owned retail stores around Virginia and traveled to the Richmond show with a smaller selection to sell. (Photo by Erin Edgerton)
A vendor looks on as a customer handles a scoped rifle at a gun show on Sunday, March 25. A majority of vendors, including the one pictured, owned retail stores around Virginia and traveled to the Richmond show with a smaller selection to sell. (Photo by Erin Edgerton)(WHSV)
Published: Jan. 13, 2020 at 12:00 PM EST
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UPDATE (Jan. 17, 2020):

As debate raged across Virginia on Thursday over a State of Emergency declared by Gov. Ralph Northam, upheld in court, that bans weapons in Capitol Square during a planned gun rights rally, the Virginia Senate advanced a number of gun control bills that have been among top priorities for Democrats.

Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee made waves by killing controversial Senate Bill 16, which would have re-defined and banned assault bills, while passing several other gun bills.

On Thursday, the full Virginia Senate passed those bills as well.

The bills which have passed in the Senate

First is SB 70, which would establish mandatory background checks for any transfer of firearms, including private sales. That bill, amid the priorities outlined in Gov. Northam’s agenda for the 2020 session, passed the Senate on 23-17 vote, with two Republicans joining Democrats to support it.

It exempts transfers between immediate family members and by estate administrators, as well as transfers during lawful activities at shooting ranges or similar spaces designed for target practice. It also exempts temporary transfers that occur while the owner is present or are necessary to prevent death or bodily harm. Additionally, it allows transfers of antique firearms, transfers that are part of a buy-back or give-back program and those that occur by operation of law.

Also passed by the full Senate were SB 69 and SB 35.

Senate Bill 69 would institute a "one gun a month" law for Virginia limiting citizens to one handgun purchase within any 30-day period.

It exempts those with valid Virginia concealed handgun permits and those replacing a lost or stolen handgun, as well as law enforcement agencies, state and local correctional facilities, private security companies and those with special circumstances with a background check from Virginia State Police. It also exempts purchases made during a private sale for a personal collection of rare or historical items.

Virginia used to have a version of the same law, so it would essentially restore the commonwealth's previous rule. It passed on 21-19 vote along party lines.

Senate Bill 35 gives local governments the authority to ban the possession of firearms in public spaces during events which require a permit, like protests. It passed on a 21-19 party line vote as well.

Other bills and the future

To become law, each of these bills will also need pass the House of Delegates, then have any differences from the different chambers resolved and voted on, and then be signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam, who has pledged to pass new gun laws since the Virginia Beach mass shooting last year.

Other proposed gun bills, including SB 240, which would establish “red flag laws” and was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, were passed by for the day on Thursday. SB 240 was passed by on Friday as well.

During the hearing, Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield said she was concerned about SB 35. She said the measure will create gun-free zones and disarm law-abiding citizens.

“The good guys won’t have the guns,” Chase said. “They won’t be able to protect themselves, and we’re basically creating a disastrous situation in which criminals will not follow the law, and it will only hurt and create victims.”

She referenced a 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, which left 59 people dead, including the gunman, saying it occurred in a gun-free zone.

Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield, spoke in favor of SB 35. He said the measure does not infringe upon law-abiding citizens because they are still able to purchase multiple handguns a year.

“Twelve handguns a year is more than enough, for most citizens,” Saslaw said. “If you need more than that, go to Texas. They don’t have any laws.

As far as gun laws up for debate in the House of Delegates, like HB 961, which shares a lot of similarities to the now-dead SB 16 ‘assault weapon’ ban, none have yet advanced to the full House floor. HB 961 remains in the Committee on Public Safety, which has not discussed it yet.

Backlash across Virginia to proposed gun laws

In the months since Democrats took control of Virginia's government for the first time in over two decades, over 100 localities across Virginia have passed resolutions declaring themselves "Second Amendment Sanctuaries," stating that they're opposed to any bills which would restrict Second Amendment rights.

Democrats in the General Assembly say the bills moving forward, like red flag laws and universal background checks, are "common-sense gun safety measures" that don't restrict any Constitutional rights.

"The pieces of legislation that we're offering is to keep guns out of prohibitive hands," said Gov. Northam. "It's very simple. They're constitutional and they support the Second Amendment."

Special hearings on the topic of becoming Second Amendment Sanctuaries have drawn thousands of peoples in localities across the commonwealth, including Augusta County, Rockingham County, Page County, and Shenandoah County.

The city of Harrisonburg held a discussion on a Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution, with no public comments permitted, and ultimately made no decision. The city of Waynesboro held a special hearing, packed with several hundred people, but ultimately took no action after discussing becoming a “constitutional city” instead of a “Second Amendment sanctuary.” The city of Staunton hosted public comments about a similar resolution, though the topic wasn’t on their agenda, and made no decision.

To counter possible gun control laws, the concept of becoming a 'Second Amendment sanctuary' means that a county expresses its intent that its public funds not be used to restrict Second Amendment rights.

According to the resolution passed in Rockingham County, for instance, the Board of Supervisors "expresses its continuing intent to uphold, support and defend all rights protected and guaranteed by the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Constitution of the United States."

In an advisory opinion last week, Attorney General Mark Herring concluded that localities and local constitutional officers “cannot nullify state laws” and must follow any gun violence prevention measures passed by the General Assembly.

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Jan. 13, 2020

One of the most controversial gun control bills proposed in the Virginia General Assembly has been killed, while others passed out of committee on Monday morning.

The fate of SB 16

Senate Bill 16, proposed by Sen. Richard Saslaw, would have expanded the definition of “assault firearms” under Virginia law, outlawed their possession, and outlawed the the selling or transfer of any firearm magazine with a capacity for more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

In the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday morning, as hundreds gathered outside the Virginia Capitol for a gun rights rally, Saslaw requested that his bill be pulled from consideration.

According to media outlets present at the meeting, committee Democrats unanimously voted to dismiss the bill. Republicans all abstained from voting after arguing that it was too late to dismiss the bill since it had already been docketed.

The vote came after a contentious start to the committee's meeting, in which Sen. Mark Obenshain requested that no votes on gun control bills be passed due to the absence of Republican Sen. Stanley.

However, Democrats in charge of the committee pressed ahead as long lines of people worked their way through security outside the capitol to get inside, following a new rule passed last week barring firearms from the building.

Other proposed gun laws moving forward

After the committee voted to strike SB 16 from consideration, votes moved ahead on other proposed gun legislation.

Committee members voted on party lines, 9 to 5, to combine Senate Bills 22 and 69, which both would institute a "one gun a month" law for Virginia limiting citizens to one handgun purchase within any 30-day period, and moved those out of the committee.

Senate Bills 12 and 70, both of which would establish mandatory background checks for any transfer of firearms, including private sales, were combined as well and moved forward out of the committee.

Also on 9-5 party line votes, the committee reported SB 240, establishing red flag laws, out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Each of those bills will move forward to the Virginia Senate for further consideration. To become law, they would need to pass the Senate, then pass the House of Delegates, then have any differences from the different chambers resolved and voted on, and then be signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam, who has pledged to pass new gun laws since the Virginia Beach mass shooting last year.

Ongoing response and an alternative to SB 16

At an NRA rally in Richmond later on Monday, both Senator Mark Obenshain and Delegate Todd Gilbert spoke against the gun control bills that are moving forward.

To protest SB 16 specifically, the National Rifle Association had announced over the weekend that they would be distributing 30-round magazines, provided through a partnership with Magpul, at Virginia's capitol building during Monday's hearings.

While SB 16 is effectively dead, a bill nearly identical to it remains on the other side of the General Assembly. As of Jan. 13, House Bill 961 has yet to be referred to a specific committee for any future action.

Backlash across Virginia to proposed gun laws

In the months since Democrats took control of Virginia's government for the first time in over two decades, over 100 localities across Virginia have passed resolutions declaring themselves "Second Amendment Sanctuaries," stating that they're opposed to any bills which would restrict Second Amendment rights.

Democrats in the General Assembly say the bills moving forward, like red flag laws and universal background checks, are "common-sense gun safety measures" that don't restrict any Constitutional rights.

"The pieces of legislation that we're offering is to keep guns out of prohibitive hands," said Gov. Northam. "It's very simple. They're constitutional and they support the Second Amendment."

Special hearings on the topic of becoming Second Amendment Sanctuaries have drawn thousands of peoples in localities across the commonwealth, including Augusta County, Rockingham County, Page County, and Shenandoah County.

None of the Shenandoah Valley cities – Harrisonburg, Staunton, and Waynesboro – have yet voted on the topic, but they may change soon.

Waynesboro has a special meeting scheduled for January 13 at Kate Collins Middle School starting at 7 p.m. Staunton City Council heard comments on the topic at a regularly scheduled city council meeting and has made no plans for a special hearing.

In Harrisonburg, the city council has added a discussion on the topic to their agenda for their regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 14.

To counter possible gun control laws, the concept of becoming a 'Second Amendment sanctuary' means that a county expresses its intent that its public funds not be used to restrict Second Amendment rights.

According to the resolution passed in Rockingham County, for instance, the Board of Supervisors "expresses its continuing intent to uphold, support and defend all rights protected and guaranteed by the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Constitution of the United States."

In an advisory opinion last week, Attorney General Mark Herring concluded that localities and local constitutional officers “cannot nullify state laws” and must follow any gun violence prevention measures passed by the General Assembly.

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