RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — 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.
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.