Despite an increase in potential gun buyers, Trump claims Virginia’s governor plans to “obliterate the 2nd Amendment.”
RICHMOND- It was a strange way for most of Virginia to wake up on Monday. President Donald Trump tweeted that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wanted to “obliterate your 2nd Amendment. I have stopped him.” What made it strange, besides the president tweeting that from his hospital bed, was the fact Virginia’s gun laws haven’t been a big topic of discussion in several months. It’s also unclear what the president believes he stopped. Since the new laws took effect in July, the White House released no statements, legal action or even a tweet about them.
What we do have, however, is a pair of very familiar questions from readers. On Monday, people emailed to ask what these new gun laws were and why lawmakers want to remove the Second Amendment. We figured now was a good time to answer both questions and explain a bit about how this process works.
First off, the Second Amendment isn’t at risk. This is something that comes up every election, as a politician claims his or her opponent wants to do away with it. But that isn’t something a delegate, senator or even a governor can do. It takes a lot to eliminate any constitutional amendment and that’s by design.
“It’s extremely difficult to repeal an amendment,” said UVA constitutional law professor Micah Schwartzman. “First, you need to get two-thirds of the House and Senate to pass a bill. It’s difficult to get them to pass any type of substantive bill. Then you need a super majority of the states, that’s three-fourths of them, to adopt it.”
Schwartzman pointed to the Equal Rights Amendment as an example. Proposed in 1971, the bill would guarantee equal legal rights for all Americans, regardless of their gender. As of 2020, it still hasn’t generated enough state support to pass.
Very rare to even try a repeal
Removing an amendment is such a rare concept it’s only happened once in US history. That took place in 1933, when Congress repealed the 18th Amendment, eliminating Prohibition. Even that proposal, with support from the majority of citizens, took the better part of a year to pass. Proposed in April, the 36th state didn’t sign on until December.
But in terms of Second Amendment rights, nothing’s been touched. Even the Supreme Court, as Schwartzman pointed out, has mainly steered clear. The latest case to address the issue, The District of Columbia vs. Heller, happened in 2008. By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to possess firearms. But when it comes to taking away rights, that’s not something they typically get involved in.
“I think what’s happening here [with President Trump] is political hyperbole,” Schwartzman said. “Nobody’s talking about repealing the Second Amendment. That’s certainly not what’s happening in Virginia. These are sensible gun control policies.”
What are Virginia’s new laws?
And that brings us to our second question. What exactly are these new gun laws? Signed into law in April, they all took effect on July 1. At the time, the laws were controversial, as anti-gun control groups held a massive rally in Richmond last January. Some people wore bulletproof vests and carried their weapons, saying they wouldn’t give them up. Local sheriffs, mostly in southern and eastern Virginia, joined in as well, saying they’d refuse to enforce any law that took away Second Amendment rights. Some cities and counties even designated themselves as “Second Amendment Sanctuaries.” That’s a takeoff on the “Sanctuary City” label placed on cities and counties that refuse to enforce immigration law. In this case, cities and counties claimed they would refuse to enforce laws that take away the right to own guns.
But that’s the point. None of the new laws took away any weapons from people who purchased and used them legally. Instead, one increased the penalty for recklessly leaving firearms around children. A second gave cities and counties the ability to ban guns from public places. Richmond used that law to ban weapons in certain areas, as we reported last month. The third law required universal background checks for any type of firearm transfer, public or private. Finally, the package of laws included a “red flag” bill. That gives authorities the ability to remove guns from someone deemed a threat to themselves or others, and is on the book in 18 other states.
More background checks, more sales
Beyond what the laws allow, it’s hard to argue they take away rights when you look at the data. More people are applying to buy a firearm in Virginia. Under state law, each person who wants to buy a gun goes through a background check. You go through one background check per gun store visit, regardless of how many weapons you purchase at that point. And that number is on the rise.
The Virginia Firearms Transaction Center reported 112,264 background checks for potential gun sales from Aug. to Sept. 2020. That is 39,038 more background checks than last year during the same time period.
Anti-gun violence advocates point to this number as evidence that the new laws aren’t restricting anyone’s rights. Instead, they’re “a step in the right direction.”
“Virginians have been asking for gun safety for a quite a while,” said Carlos A. Gutiérrez, head of community outreach at the Virginia chapter of Moms Demand Action. Moms Demand Action is an anti gun violence organization that played a pivotal role in fighting for stricter gun control in Virginia.
“Our main mission is to advocate for gun violence prevention policies and legislation that wasn’t being done in Virginia,” said Gutiérrez.
And that’s something a majority of Virginia residents seem to want. A poll by Virginia Commonwealth University in December 2019 found 86% supported background checks on all guns sales. A total of 73% wanted a ‘red flag’ law and a smaller 54% majority supported banning assault-style weapons.
Why do we need background checks?
Prior to July, not all gun stores in Virginia ran federal background checks. The law only required federally licensed owners to run checks on customers. That’s why his group pushed for changes, Gutiérrez said.
“If someone who’s dangerous or shouldn’t have a firearm, they can choose to not go to a federally licensed dealer because they know they won’t get a background check. They can go online or a to an unlicensed dealer at a gun show and skirt around the issue,” said Gutiérrez. “The new law helps close that loophole.”
“The reason this (law passing) is important is because states who have laws requiring background checks on all gun sales have seen a reduction in firearm homicides and suicides using a firearm,” said Gutiérrez. “The increase in background checks in Virginia makes that law even more important.”
Arianna Coghill is a content producer at Dogwood. You can reach her at arianna@couriernewsroom.
Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.