Virginia lawmakers to debate assault weapon ban

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Democratic lawmakers in Virginia are set to try to advance legislation to ban assault weapons despite pushback from members of their own party.

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 state House committee is scheduled to take up legislation backed by Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday that would ban the sale of certain semi-automatic firearms, including popular AR-15 style rifles. But the bill would not require current owners of assault weapons to turn them in or register them with state police, as some earlier proposals required.

"This is a compromise that takes into account folk's concerns and is still a good bill that will help reduce mass murders in the commonwealth," said Del. Mark Levine, a Democrat sponsoring the legislation.

Heated debates over guns have dominated this year's legislative session, as Virginia has become ground zero in the nation's raging debate over gun control and mass shootings.

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. Democrats won full control of the legislature for the first time in a generation and have promised to pass a slate of gun-control laws.

Some of the fiercest pushback has centered on the proposed assault weapons ban, as gun-rights advocates accuse 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.

Gun owners have descended on local government offices to demand they establish sanctuaries for gun rights. More than 100 counties, cities and towns have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and vowed to oppose any new “unconstitutional restrictions” on guns.

And last month, tens of thousands of guns rights activists from across the country rallied in downtown Richmond, some donning tactical gear and carrying military rifles, to voice their opposition to many of the gun laws moving through the statehouse, with a strong focus on the proposed assault weapons bill.

Both chambers of the General Assembly have passed some of Northam's proposed gun control measures, and will hash out any differences between their respective versions in coming weeks. Those include limiting handgun purchases to once a month; universal background checks on gun purchases; and a red flag bill that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from anyone deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.

The Senate has already spiked legislation banning assault weapons after several Democratic senators indicated they wouldn't support it. And while the House has already passed several gun control measures backed by Northam with relative ease, it has put off debate on a proposed assault weapon ban. The deadline for each chamber to pass its own legislation is Tuesday.

It's unclear if the latest House version will have enough support to pass both chambers.

“I doubt it, but we'll see,” said Democratic Sen. John Edwards, a moderate Democrat who leads the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.

Democrats have a slim 21-19 majority in the state senate, giving them little margin to lose members on key votes like an assault weapons ban. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, casts votes in cases of a tie.