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Politifact Virginia: Gun Control In The General Assembly

A Democratic-backed package on gun-control bills is advancing in the General Assembly this winter despite protests that it would confiscate firearms from law-abiding Virginians.

Last fall’s elections gave Democrats majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time this century. They’ve been working to pass eight gun-control bills proposed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

Gun-rights advocates protested the legislation at a Jan. 20 rally around the Capitol. State Police estimated the crowd at 22,000. Many of the speakers and protestors accused the Democrats of trying to disarm law-abiding citizens - a complaint also made the pro-gun National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America, and the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

Could law-abiding Virginians be disarmed under the Democratic bills?

The answer is yes, but only temporarily in circumstances when a gun-owner is judged to be a threat to himself or others.

The debate has mostly focused on one bill in the package that would establish a red-flag law in Virginia. It passed the Senate on a party-line, 21-19 vote and now goes to the House.

The measure would set up local law enforcement officers to investigate complaints that a gun owner is likely to harm himself or others. If the officers agree, they could petition a judge to issue an extreme-risk order that would bar the person from possessing a firearm for 14 days. Police would go to the person’s home, present the order and seize any guns the person may have. Police can also get a warrant to search the home for firearms. 

The gun owner would get a hearing in Circuit Court within 14 days of the order. If the judge found the person to be a “substantial threat,” he could extend the order for 180-day periods until the risk ended. The person would have the option of letting police hold his guns or designating a legally-qualified individual to do so.

Pro-gun legislators and lobbyists say the bill would allow the government to seize guns before the owner gets an opportunity to defend himself in court, and would put police in danger if the person refused to cede his firearms.

Seventeen states have red-flag laws, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control organization founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Everytown has gathered statistics for 10 of the states and found they issued 2,303 extreme-risk orders in in 2018. Maryland issued 303 orders that year.

A second bill in Northam’s package would also require some Virginians not charged with a crime to temporarily give up their guns.

Protective orders

Protective orders are issued by judges to safeguard victims of violence and those who fear they will be harmed. The orders usually ban an abuser from any contact with the victim.

Bills in the House and Senate would bar anyone under a permanent order - lasting up to two years - from possessing a firearm during the time. The abuser would be given 24 hours after the order is entered to give his guns to local law enforcement or transfer them to a person legally qualified to have firearms. The person could get his guns back when he’s no longer subject to a protective order.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League “strongly opposes” the legislation. It notes that a person under a restraining order doesn’t have to be charged with a crime, and some people may seek a restraining order under false pretenses. The VCDL says the bill is “about confiscation, not public safety.”

The measure has bipartisan support in both legislative chambers. Proponents say it will protect domestic violence victims. Virginia courts issued 3,358 permanent protective in 2018, according to Virginia Supreme Court data.

Here’s an update on the rest of Northam’s gun proposals:.

Background checks

The Senate has approved a bill that would require most Virginians to undergo a criminal background check before buying or receiving a firearm. Currently, you have to be checked to buy a gun from a federally-licensed firearms dealer, but one-on-one private sales are exempt. This bill, and a similar measure in the House, would close that loophole.

Those who transferred or received a gun without a check could be found guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

The bills exempt firearms transactions between immediate family members and antique gun collectors.

Assault weapons ban

A House bill would ban the sale or transfer an assault firearms - a rifle with a fixed magazine that can carry more than 10 bullets - after July 1. Owners of assault weapons on July 1 could keep the weapons if they registered them with the State Police by Jan. 1, 2021. Otherwise, they would have to transfer the firearm out of state or give them to State Police. Violators could be found guilty of a Class 6 felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

The bill also would ban the sale or exchange of silencers, large-capacity magazines and bump stocks that allow the rapid firing of bullets. It would bar a person from carrying a shotgun with a magazine capable of holding more than seven rounds of the longest bullets in can accommodate..

Handgun-a-month limit

On a 21-19 party-line vote, Senate Democrats passed a bill that would limit most people to buying one handgun every 30 days in Virginia. Violations would be a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and $2,500 fine. Exemptions would be granted to law enforcement and security officials, and holders of Virginia concealed carry permits. A similar measure is advancing in the House.

Virginia enacted a one-handgun-a-month law in 1993 under Democratic Gov. Doug Wilder, mainly to stop gun running to New York. The law was repealed in 2012 under Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Reporting stolen guns

Bills are pending in the Senate and House that would require lawful gun owners to report the loss or theft of any of their firearms to the State Police within 24 hours after its discovered. Failure to comply could result in a maximum $250 civil fine. People who report the losses or thefts would be immune from liability for acts committed with their missing firearms. Those who didn’t report would not be immune.

Child safety

Bills in the House and Senate would toughen state laws and penalties for leaving a loaded, unsecured firearm within reach of an unsupervised minor.

It’s now a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum $500 fine, to leave such a gun within grasp of a child younger than 14. The bill would make a felony, carrying a maximum five-year prison sentence, to leave the weapon within reach of unsupervised people younger than 18.

At this writing, the bill has passed the House Public Safety Committee on a party-line vote. It has not been taken up in the Senate.

Local authority

On a party-line vote, the Senate has passed a bill that would allow localities to ban guns from events held on public property, such as buildings, parks and streets. The measure will be considered by the House later this winter.