What you need to know about the General Assembly’s special session on gun laws
By Keya Vakil
July 8, 2019

Virginia lawmakers will return to Richmond on Tuesday for a special gun law-focused session of the General Assembly. 

Gov. Ralph Northam called the session to reform the state’s gun laws after a gunman killed 12 people during a mass shooting in Virginia Beach on May 31. In the month since Northam called for the special session, Democrats, Republicans, and advocacy groups on both sides of the gun issue have been preparing for what is likely to be a contentious battle over the state’s gun laws. 

With less than 24 hours to go the session starts, here’s where things stand:

Democrats are pushing to reform to the state’s lax gun laws

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives Virginia a “D” grade for its gun laws. 

When Democrats tried to strengthen the state’s gun laws earlier this year during the regular session, Republicans obstructed them. 

Now Democrats are trying again. Here’s some of what they’re hoping to pass:

  • Democrats want to pass legislation requiring universal background checks for all gun sales. Currently, background checks are only required for sales made by federally licensed firearms dealers. Private sellers, including those at gun shows who don’t have a license, can sell firearms without conducting a background check.
  • Democrats also want to pass an assault weapons ban, which would ban gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
  • A red-flag law that would allow guns to be taken away from anyone who appears to be in danger of hurting themselves or others. Such an individual would be barred from keeping or buying guns for 14 days, with law enforcement holding onto the person’s weapons. As the Virginia Mercury reports, the order would have to be given by a judge or magistrate, and would need to be based on a history of violence and supported by a police investigation. The subject could file a motion to dismiss the order during those 14 days, but the court would also have the right to extend it to six months. 
  • Democrats also want to give localities the ability to regulate firearms in government buildings. Richmond’s city council has already said it would do so if the General Assembly allowed it to, while the Virginia Beach City Council defeated such a resolution.
  • Democrats hope to reinstate Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law, which was repealed in 2012 by former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. Gun safety advocates say that limiting the sale of handguns to one per month helps prevent gun trafficking by preventing bulk purchases of firearms. 
  • Gun owners would be required to report lost or stolen firearms to authorities within 24 hours. 
  • Any person who leaves a loaded, unsecured gun around a minor under the age of 18 would be guilty of a Class 6 felony, punishable by one to five years in jail or a mixture of jail time and a $2,500 fine. If the minor was under 14, it would be a Class 3 felony. Under current law, leaving a loaded gun around a child under 14 is a misdemeanor.

The Democrats’ agenda is ambitious given that Republicans control both the House of Delegates and the state Senate. With that in mind, let’s take a look at where they stand.

Republicans remain opposed to serious reforms

Republicans have balked at strengthening the state’s gun laws. Instead, they have said they want to focus on mandatory minimum sentences for those who break existing gun laws. 

Republicans are likely to re-introduce a bill that would require a minimum 60-day sentence for a person’s second domestic violence charge. This is likely to put them in direct conflict with Northam, who previously vetoed the law and has said he will not sign any new mandatory minimum sentencing laws because they disproportionately affect Virginians of color.

One Republican idea that may gain some traction is a proposal that would allow police to offer convicts time off on their sentences in exchange for their help bringing gun-theft and fencing rings to justice. 

In their opposition to any significant gun reform legislation, Republicans continue to position themselves as defending the Second Amendment. They also continue to depict the gun violence problem as being solely a mental health issue. 

State Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) recently appeared at an NRA Town Hall, and said “This isn’t about gun control. This is a mental health issue,” according to an audio recording obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

Republicans aren’t alone in that viewpoint, either. 

The NRA continues to oppose gun law reforms

The National Rifle Association, the powerful pro-gun group based in Fairfax, has joined Republicans in opposing universal background checks, assault weapons bans, and all other Democrat-backed attempts to reform the state’s gun laws. 

Much like Republicans, the NRA also insists that mental health is the real issue behind gun violence.

In advance of the special session, the NRA sponsored a series of town halls across Virginia and multiple Republican lawmakers, including state Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach), Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) and Del. Rob Bloxom (R-Accomack), attended.

DeSteph has come under fire for attending the town hall after the mass shooting in his city while Reeves made headlines by invoking the sexuality of openly gay state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) in an attempt to paint him as “really liberal left.” 

Del. Margaret B. Ransone (R-Westmoreland) also appeared at an NRA Town Hall in Fredericksburg, where she told an audience of people largely opposed to gun safety laws that Democrats “want our state.”

The NRA isn’t the only group going on the offensive against gun safety. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that the Virginia Citizens Defense League is working with Sen. Dick Black (R-Loudoun) on legislation that would allow local government employees to carry concealed firearms at work with a permit.

While the NRA and other pro-gun groups have refused to budge in their opposition, they’ve now got a lot more competition than in years past.

Gun safety advocates push for stronger laws

In response to the NRA’s Town Hall, the Hampton Roads chapter of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots group fighting for public safety measures to protect people from gun violence, announced its own meeting.

DeSteph did not attend their meeting, but his opponent, Missy Cotter Smasal, a businesswoman and former Naval officer, did. 

Moms Demand Action also plans to visit the statehouse on Tuesday morning for the start of the special session, where they will urge lawmakers to support Democrats’ proposed gun safety bills.

They won’t be alone, either, as the Charlottesville Coalition for Gun Violence Prevention intends to rally outside the Capitol on Tuesday as well.

Giffords also praised Gov. Northam’s decision to call a special session and criticized Republicans’ inaction at a time when someone is killed by a gun in Virginia every 10 hours and when the gun violence epidemic costs the state $5.3 billion a year.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence described the special session as a “decisive moment for Virginia” and called on legislators to pass universal background checks, red flag laws, and automatic weapons bans, and several other bills that Democrats are proposing.

In an op-ed published on Medium, Virginia State Director at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence Lori Haas wrote that “Virginia cannot afford inaction. We have already lost too many of our citizens to gun violence. This issue touches every Virginian and every American. Virginia’s leaders have a responsibility to act, and tomorrow, the nation will be watching. It is time to do the right thing. It is time to stop gun violence.”

We know what both political parties and advocate groups on both sides want, but what about regular, everyday Virginians?

Everyday Virginians support stronger gun laws

After the Virginia Beach shooting, Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy released a memo summarizing its polling on the issue to inform the debate.

“In 2016 and 2018 surveys, voters overall strongly supported several specific gun control proposals, including requiring background checks on all gun sales, limiting concealed carry, and banning assault-style weapons,” the researchers wrote in the memo.

A 2018 CNU survey found that 84% of Virginia voters support requiring background checks on all gun sales, including 76% of self-identified Republicans said they support background checks for private gun sales. 

The 2018 survey also found that 65% of voters also support an assault weapons ban. Survey respondents also opposed allowing anyone who carries a gun to conceal and carry without a permit, including 72% of Republicans and 88% of Democrats.

On the general question of gun control, 54% of respondents said it is more important to control who can buy guns, while 41% said it is more important to protect the rights of gun owners.

Other polls back this up, too. A 2018 Quinnipiac University poll found that 60% of Virginia voters support stricter gun laws.

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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