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Democrats Push Through Four Gun Control Bills, Grapple With Assault Weapons Ban

Group of People in the Hallway
General Assembly Gun Rights Supporters. (Photo:  Crixell Matthews)

Several gun control measures that Virginia Democrats prioritized this year advanced out of a Senate committee, despite opposition from hundreds of vocal gun-rights advocates who filled the capitol Monday.

Lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines when they sent four gun control bills to the Senate floor. 

The Democrats voted to reinstate a Virginia law from the Gov. Douglas Wilder Administration that limits the number of handguns a person can purchase to one per month. 

And they approved a bill to allow local governments to ban handguns at events in public spaces like farmers markets and festivals. 

Senator Scott Surovell (D - Fairfax) said that law would give unique communities an option to decide for themselves.   

“In the city of Alexandria, they don’t want AR-15’s at their farmer’s market. Maybe they have AR-15’s at the Culpeper farmer’s market. But in Alexandria we don’t do that,” he said.

Richard Pyle, who lives in Dinwiddie county, argued the bill would make people less safe in public places. 

“Just because I take my family to a park or a farmer’s market doesn’t mean I give up the right to defend myself,” Pyle said. “I have a responsibility to protect my family”

Democrats endorsed a bill to implement an extreme risk protection or “red flag” law, which allows police to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from someone who is deemed a threat to themselves or the public. Republicans pushed back on the legislation.

“This bill probably scares me more than any bill I’ve seen in the Senate of Virginia in the General Assembly in the 12 years I’ve been here,” Sen. Richard Stuart (R - Stafford) said. 

The committee also advanced legislation to create a universal background check system. It would require record checks for all sales and transfers. Right now, only sellers with a federal firearms license are required to do this. 

Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) highlighted data from the Virginia State Police that shows almost 3500 Virginians failed background checks in 2018. But, she noted, they can still buy them from private sellers and gun shows. 

“Requiring background checks for all purchases will keep firearms out of the hands of individuals who should not have them,” Lucas said. 

The committee ultimately changed the bill to allow some firearms transfers to take place without a background check. Attorney General Mark Herring, a proponent of gun restrictions, called it disappointing. 

“We should be closing loopholes, not opening new ones,” he said. “So I’m hopeful as the legislation moves through the process and is considered by the full chambers and other committees that it will be tightened again.”

Banning assault weapons and hardware like bump stocks and silencers are on the list of bills Democrats want to pass this year. That has gun rights groups on high alert. 

Democratic Senator Dick Saslaw (D - Fairfax) struck his controversial bill to completely ban the sale or possession of an assault weapon. DJ Spiker, head of the Virginia Chapter of the National Rifle Association, called the bill egregious. 

“While that is encouraging to see, there are still the unfortunate position that many of these bills coming out are radical and beyond the pale,” Spiker said. 

But Democrats aren’t finished debating an assault weapons ban. 

Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) has a bill that would make the future sales of the firearms illegal. But it would allow any person who already owns one to keep it if they register it with State Police.  

“But my hope is they go the way of the machine gun,” he said. “Something that’s exceedingly rare, highly registered, highly regulated, so that they’re not something that someone can easily pick up at a moment’s notice and start shooting a bunch of people.”

The proposed ban isolated some Democrats who said the state shouldn’t outlaw guns that residents purchased legally.  Senator Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax) was initially against an all-out ban but told VPM he might consider the measure to ban future sales. 

Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke) said he likes the concept of banning assault weapons because they are so deadly, but he says not everyone agrees on what an assault weapon is. 

“How do you enforce it? The definition is fairly elastic,” he said. “That’s the problem.”