RICHMOND, Va. (AP/WHSV) — Democrats in the Virginia House of Delegates are advancing a package of gun-control measures less than a week after tens of thousands of pro-gun advocates from around the country rallied at the state Capitol.
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)
But the advancing bills don’t include a proposed 'assault weapon' ban, a top priority for Gov. Ralph Northam and one that’s drawn fierce resistance from gun-rights advocates.
The bill would redefine what constitutes an 'assault rifle' under Virginia law and ban anyone from possessing said weapons. For anyone already possessing a weapon under the new definition as of the law's implementation, it would require them to obtain a permit to possess the weapons from Virginia State Police.
So far, that bill has stayed in committee. Its Senate counterpart was killed early in the General Assembly session while other gun bills, like universal background checks, passed.
A Democratic-led House committee voted Friday for several pieces of gun legislation that a Republican majority has blocked for years. Those bills include limiting handgun purchases to once a month; universal background checks on gun purchases; allowing localities to ban guns in public buildings, parks and other areas; and a red flag bill that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from anyone deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.
Almost all of the bills passed on a 13-9 party line vote.
“Our action today is for the families who have lost loved ones as a result of gun violence,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said.
The measures will go to the full House for a vote, likely next week, before going to the Senate, which has already passed some gun-control bills of its own.
The House committee passed seven out of eight gun bills that Northam has said were his priority. But it did not take up an assault weapon ban, which some Democrats said they don’t think can pass this year. The Senate has already killed off its version of the bill and some moderate Democratic senators said they won’t support the legislation, which would outlaw the popular AR-15-style rifles.
Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said they are still working on the bill and there’s plenty of time left to get it passed.
“It’s an important issue for the governor,” Moran said. “We’ve seen in mass shootings, these are the weapons that are used.”
Virginia has become a key flash point in the national debate over gun violence.
Northam and Democratic lawmakers have credited their focus on gun control for helping them win full control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than two decades. Guns were a key topic of last year’s legislative elections — particularly after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach claimed a dozen lives — and gun-control groups heavily funded Democratic candidates.
Backlash across Virginia to proposed gun laws
On Monday, an estimated 22,000 gun-rights activists from around the country rallied peacefully at the Virginia Capitol to protest plans by the state’s Democratic leadership to pass gun-control legislation.
Overall, the mood throughout the day was largely festive. Attendees spilled into the streets, chanting “USA” and waving signs denouncing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. Chants broke out on occasion calling for Northam to leave office, and crowds frequently began reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or singing the National Anthem.
After a state of emergency issued by Gov. Northam the week before due to "credible threats of violence," the rally remained peaceful. One arrest was made for a woman who was wearing a bandanna covering her face after getting two previous warnings by police, but no violence was reported.
The protesters, hailing from Virginia but also taking buses from around the country, came out in strong numbers despite frigid temperatures to send a message to legislators, they said.
Some of the most vocal opposition has focused on plans to ban AR-15s and other assault weapons. Gun-rights advocates have accused Democrats of wanting to confiscate such rifles from current gun owners. Northam has said he has no interest in doing so.
An estimated 8 million AR-style guns have been sold since they were introduced to the public in the 1960s. The weapons are known as easy to use, easy to clean and easy to modify with a variety of scopes, stocks and rails.
Monday's rally was organized by an influential grassroots gun-rights group, the Virginia Citizens Defense League. The group holds a yearly rally at the Capitol, typically a low-key event with a few hundred gun enthusiasts listening to speeches from a handful of ambitious Republican lawmakers. But this year, many more were expected. Second Amendment groups have identified the state as a rallying point for the fight against what they see as a national erosion of gun rights.
The pushback against proposed new gun restrictions began immediately after Democrats won majorities in both the state Senate and House of Delegates in November.
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 a href="https://www.whsv.com/content/news/Hearing-set-to-begin-as-Augusta-County-considers-becoming-a-2nd-Amendment-sanctuary-565802181.html" target="_blank">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 at several regular city council meetings, but voted on Jan. 23 not to consider passing a resolution on the topic.
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.