From Going Nowhere To Becoming Law: How Virginia Made History On Guns

By Matt Blair

March 9, 2020

Less than one year after the Virginia Beach mass shooting, Virginia passes a comprehensive package of gun safety legislation.

After a mass shooting in Virginia Beach in May killed a dozen people, Gov. Ralph Northam announced an ambitious package of new gun laws for the state. He called a special session to consider those bills and any other ideas from the state legislature in July. But that meeting was quickly shut down by the then-Republican majority after 90 minutes, with almost no debate.

The 2019 election changed everything. Democrats took control of the General Assembly in 2020, and passed seven of Northam’s eight proposed bills. Below we review what happened with each of those pieces of legislation, now that the General Assembly session has all but wrapped up. (There will be votes Thursday on the state budget.)

In addition to the bills below, other gun safety regulations passed in this session include one requiring in-person training for gun permits and another banning school boards from authorizing teachers to carry firearms.

1) Universal background checks

Legislation requiring a background check on almost all sales and transfers of firearms passed both the House and Senate. Members of each chamber ironed out the differences in a conference committee, and the final version passed on Saturday

The legislation eradicates the gun show “loophole” which previously allowed sales without a background check. While touted as “universal,” lawmakers have carved out a few exceptions. These include purchases between family members, temporary lending while the original owner is still present and as part of a buyback or giveback programs.

2) Ban the sale of assault weapons

Banning the sale of assault weapons was the only gun safety bill included in Northam’s package that didn’t make it through the General Assembly. The House approved the measure with a three-vote margin, but it then stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Four Democrats joined with Republicans to prevent the assault weapons ban from passing. 

The Democratic senators on the committee who killed the bill gave several reasons for their decision. Sen John S. Edwards (D- Roanoke) and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) expressed concern that the categorization of what constituted an assault weapons ban was unclear. Fellow committee member Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), meanwhile, was hesitant to take away something central to some Virginians’ identity. In an interview with the Washington Post, Petersen said, “You can’t discount people that were raised and grew up in this state and have their own traditions.”

3) Allowing only one handgun purchase within a 30-day period

This bill was also saved at the last minute. Northam asked legislators to reinstate legislation limiting people to purchasing one handgun a month. Virginia had such a law from 1993 until 2012, when the Republican-controlled General Assembly then repealed the law. 

Del. Jeion Ward (D-Hampton) introduced the legislation to the House, which then cleared it. When it was sent over the Senate, they amended the original version of the bill to include exceptions for gun-owners with concealed-carry permits. The House voted against the updated version with a resounding 97-0 vote, but ultimately accepted the change.

4) Reporting lost or stolen guns to police

The initial bill introduced to the House by Jeffrey M Bourne (D-Richmond) gave people a 24 hours window to make the report to police. That version cleared the House, but when It headed to the Senate, legislators extended the window to 48 hours. Even with the extension, the bill was only passed by the Senate after Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax broke a 20-20 tie. 

5) “Red flag” rules

The so-called “red flag” bill would grant law enforcement and the courts the authority to remove firearms from somebody exhibiting behavior that presents an immediate threat to self or others.

After clearing the House, the legislation (House Bill 674) cleared the Senate at the end of February, but only after Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke a 20-20 tie with his vote.

6) Banning guns from people under permanent protective orders

The bill prohibits any person subject to a permanent protective order (i.e. a protective order with a maximum duration of two years) from knowingly possessing a firearm while the order is in effect. It passed in February.

7) Penalties for leaving a loaded, unsecured firearm around children

The House initially passed a version of this bill that would have increased the penalty of recklessly leaving a firearm near a child up to a Class 6 felony. It also would’ve increased the definition of a child from 14 to 18 years old.

The Senate amended the bill, lowering the punishment to a Class 3 misdemeanor and keeping in place the definition of a child as anyone age 14 and under. This version of the bill cleared the House and is now on its way to the governor’s desk.

8) Giving local governments more authority to ban guns in public places

This bill permits local governments to limit guns at city events, in public parks and in government buildings. The original bill successfully cleared both the House and Senate with some amendments and is now headed to the Governor.

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