Last week, a shooter in a Virginia Beach municipal building killed 12 people in about ten minutes. That’s more time than state lawmakers spent debating a bill in January that would have banned the extended-capacity magazine the shooter used to fire as many bullets as possible without having to reload.
In January, just four members of the 100-member General Assembly, all Republicans from safe districts and with favorable ratings from the National Rifle Association, stopped a bill to ban those extended-capacity magazines from being considered in a full committee hearing, much less discussed on the floor of the House of Delegates.
It was just one of at least 50 gun safety bills that Virginia Republicans have blocked over the past few legislative sessions, according to the Giffords Law Center, a gun safety research and policy group.
Del. Kathy Tran (D-42) said there were “no questions and no discussions” when her bill to ban the sale of extended-capacity magazines, defined as ammunition sleeves holding more than 10 bullets, came up in the subcommittee. Instead, Tran said it was met with silence from her Republican colleagues, who called for a vote. All four Republicans voted to pass the bill by.
And just like that, another gun safety bill vanished. If not for the tragedy at the Virginia Beach municipal building, few would have noticed.
The next day the chairman of the subcommittee, Del. Matthew Fariss (R-59), told the full committee they worked through a “very robust agenda last night.” With a cup of coffee in hand, he then delivered his report. There was no mention of Tran’s bill, nor the seven other votes on gun safety measures that were defeated along party lines.
Instead, Fariss announced the subcommittee passed a bill that made it easier for out-of-state residents to secure a concealed carry permit. Eight minutes later, that bill passed the full committee. Ten days after that, it passed the House on a party-line vote of 50-48.
The concealed-carry permit bill was the only significant gun legislation to make it to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk in 2019. Northam vetoed the measure in February.
Tran’s bill might not have stopped Craddock, who purchased his guns legally in 2018, from carrying out his murdering spree. But it could have made it harder for him to acquire extended magazines to double the number of bullets he could shoot before reloading.
The fate of Tran’s bill and others that aim to enhance gun safety reveal a recurring trend in the House of Delegates: Republicans control the debate on gun policy, which means there’s almost no debate in the first place.
Nicola Bocour, state legislative director for the Giffords family organization, said Republicans have used this strategy for years, often calling up gun safety bills with “very short notice,” and then striking them down in committee as quickly as possible.
“They take that kind of action before they really engage the public within that legislative session,” Bocour said.
Beyond blocking gun safety legislation, Republicans have repeatedly passed bills that increase access to weapons in recent years. Northam and former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe routinely vetoed many of them.
The result is a legislative stalemate that has kept Virginia in the middle of the pack compared to other states when it comes to gun safety legislation. Bocour said research from her organization shows states with strong gun laws “generally have much lower gun violence and death rates.”
To break the stalemate, Democrats would likely need to win the House of Delegates. Though Republicans have made good on their promise to provide proportional representation on committees, with a 51-49 majority, a 6-person subcommittee like the one that routinely handles gun legislation gets rounded-up in their favor, giving the majority party a 4-2 advantage rather than a 3-3 split. In the case of gun legislation, that provides the GOP with an effective blockade to quickly halt any bills they don’t like from receiving further discussion.
“The makeup of the committee in terms of sheer numbers is not allowing for a robust conversation” on gun safety bills, much less a full floor vote, Tran said.
Gun Safety Legislation Blocked by Republicans in 2019
Universal Background Checks (HB 2479, SB 1454, SB 1164, SB 1162): These bills would require people to pass an instant background check before purchasing a firearm. Democrats have tried to push this policy through many vehicles over the years with no success. Background checks are largely supported by the public nationally and at the state level.
Extreme Risk Protection Order laws (SB 1458, HB 1763): These bills, commonly called red flag laws, allow close family members and law enforcement officers to petition a court to temporarily limit a person’s access to firearms if they have exhibited dangerous behavior, “and particularly recent dangerous behavior,” Bocour said. The House bill, sponsored by Del. Rip Sullivan (D-Va.) was killed in MPPS Subcommittee #1 by a 4-2 vote. Tran said the chairman cut Sullivan’s presentation of evidence for the bill short after about 10 minutes.
Domestic Violence (SB 1467): This legislation prevents persons with permanent protective orders (i.e., domestic abusers) from purchasing firearms and mandates that prohibited abusers relinquish their guns, too.
Assault Weapons and Extended Magazines Bans (HB 2492, SB 1748): Tran’s bill and its Senate companion would have changed the definition of an assault weapon from a gun that holds more than 20 rounds of ammunition to one that holds more than ten. Democrats have pushed this legislation i past sessions since at least 2011.
Local Authority to Prohibit Firearms at Permitted Events (SB 1473, SB 1482, SB 1303): These bills allow local authorities to prohibit firearms at events that require a permit. If enacted, such laws “could prevent everyday disagreements from escalating into deadly assaults,” according to the Giffords Law Center.
Ban on Bump Stocks (SB 1008, SB 1163): These bills criminalize the manufacture, sale, and possession of bump stocks. A bump stock was used in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that left 58 people dead. Though a federal ban went into effect on March 26, Virginia lawmakers passed on opportunities to restrict bump stocks sooner.
One Handgun a Month (SB 1034, SB 1446, HB2604): Gun safety advocates say that limiting the sale of handguns to one per month helps prevent gun trafficking by preventing bulk purchases of firearms. That was the law in Virginia until Republicans repealed the statute in 2012. Republicans then rejected Democrats’ efforts to revisit the 30-day purchase rule in 2019.
Reporting Lost or Stolen Firearms (SB 1324, HB 1644): These bills mandate that gun owners report lost or stolen firearms to authorities within 24 hours. Neither bill moved through committee.
Penalty for allowing minors access to firearms (SB 1096, HB 2285): Legislation providing that any person who leaves a loaded, unsecured gun to a minor under the age of 18 is guilty of a Class 6 felony, or of a Class 3 Felony if left to a minor under 14-years-old. Neither bill moved.
With special session and elections looming, gun safety is on the ballot
The last time gun policy got this much attention in Virginia was after the 2007 Virginia Tech Shootings. Then Gov. Tim Kaine ordered a state study on gun violence, but ultimately very little changed in state law.
Last week’s tragedy could put a dent in the Republican blockade, though. On Tuesday, Northam ordered a special session of the General Assembly to address gun violence. Lawmakers are expected to reconvene later this summer to reconsider some of the above proposals and more. With public opinion on their side, Democrats see a window of opportunity on gun safety.
But few Republicans have gone on record expressing an openness to gun reform, instead lamenting that it is not an appropriate time to reignite the debate. As Republican Virginia Beach State Sen. Bill DeSteph put it: “We should not detract from our period of grief by politicizing this tragedy with a debate on gun control.”
But Bocour said lawmakers should be prepared to take action “because if they don’t when they show up in November this special session will be fresh on voters’ minds.”
That could be especially true in the Virginia Beach senate race, where Missy Cotter Smasal, a Navy veteran and proponent of enhanced gun safety initiatives, is running against DeSteph.
“Our current state senator is calling for thoughts and prayers while he has failed to take any action to prevent gun violence in his six years in Richmond,” she said. “In fact, he is an extremist about weapons, having voted for a dangerous “bazooka” bill.”
In 2014, DeSteph supported HB 878, which would’ve allowed eligible people to carry “Class 3” weapons, which includes explosives and bazookas.
When asked about Cotter’s statement, Jill Eyler, DeSteph’s chief of staff, said the office does not “engage in negative rhetoric” and pledged to run an “issues-focused campaign.” All issues except, perhaps, guns.