The Evolution of Virginia’s Gun Laws

FILE - Protestors gather at a vigil for victims of gun violence outside the National Rifle Association's headquarters building in Fairfax, Va., Aug. 5, 2019 (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

By Meghin Moore
June 22, 2022

As talks around a new potential bipartisan gun law become more prominent, it’s important to take a look at the gun laws in Virginia.

It has been a little over 15 years since 32 Virginia Tech students and professors were murdered, with 17 others injured, at the hands of an undergraduate student who used two semi-automatic pistols in two separate places on-campus. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting not just in Virginia’s history, but in American history, and it opened a wider conversation on gun culture in the country, as well as a conversation on mental health issues, as well as gun laws and gun control. 

15 years later, there has been significant change regarding gun laws, gun control, and mental health awareness across the board, but in Virginia, many changes were slow to take place, or were removed only to be put back in law. In that timeframe, there have been three notable firearm-related incidents in the commonwealth: in 2015, 2017, and 2019. 

In larger metropolitan regions, including Hampton Roads, Virginia Beach, and Richmond, it’s not unusual to hear about shootings in the news, including one from March that killed a Virginian-Pilot reporter

According to Everytown for Gun Safety Research, the commonwealth ranks #14 in the country for gun law strength, because of the progress made in strengthening gun laws in recent years.

Where It All (Mostly) Began

In the aftermath of the shooting at Virginia Tech, the passage of the only bipartisan federal gun control measure since 1994 was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush. It strengthened the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), allowing mental health records to also be accessed in NICS, which would have barred the Virginia Tech shooter from legally purchasing firearms.

The conversation around gun control and mental health was also amplified in Virginia, where a state-appointed body worked to review what happened. The Virginia Tech Review Panel not only looked into what happened, but also looked into Virginia’s gun laws, as well as any gaps in the mental health system, and privacy laws that led to the shooter’s condition to deteriorate while a student at the university.

Years later, the gun conversation was reopened when Alison Parker and Adam Ward, journalists with WDBJ in Roanoke, were murdered by a former coworker while working on a live television interview in 2015. The gun in question wasn’t a semi-automatic rifle, but a handgun. Their interview subject, Vicki Gardner, was also shot, but survived the incident. In the wake of the tragedy, then-Governor Terry McAuliffe took to Twitter to reaffirm his support for increased gun control measures. Earlier that year, the General Assembly did not pass a package of gun control measures proposed by him. 

After the tragedy, Parker’s boyfriend Chris Hurst successfully ran for a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates, working to help pass gun control legislation. Her father, Andy, also became a strong gun control advocate.

In 2017, the gun conversation came back into play after a shooting took place as a group of Republican congressmen were at baseball practice in Alexandria ahead of the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity. In the shooting, then-US House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, along with a US Capitol police officer, a congressional aide, and a lobbyist were injured, and the gunman ended up in a ten-minute shootout with Capitol police officers, as well as Alexandria Police. The shooter died after the incident. Scalise was the first sitting member of Congress to be shot since Gabby Giffords in 2011, and underwent surgery after being shot in the hip. 

Modern-Day Gun Laws

In 2020, new gun laws were signed by former Gov. Ralph Northam in April, taking effect in July 2020, all because of the Democratic trifecta in Virginia’s government.

A year before, the then-Republican-led General Assembly held a special session in the wake of the Virginia Beach Municipal Building shooting, where 12 people were killed. The special session adjourned after only 90 minutes, without a single bill considered. 30 bills had been filed with the intent to restrict gun use, as well as increasing and strengthening penalties for gun law violations. GOP leaders in the House and Senate wanted to refer the bills to the bipartisan Virginia State Crime Commission for a study, and reconvene after the 2020 state election. In 2020, all 140 legislative seats were up for grabs on the ballot in the commonwealth. 

After the 2020 election, the General Assembly shifted from being GOP-led to Democrat-led, allowing lawmakers to work on gun control legislation, with the backing of groups like Moms Demand Action, as well as the Coalition To Stop Gun Violence. Other groups, such as the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), as well as the National Rifle Association (NRA) – whose headquarters are located in Fairfax, even after declaring bankruptcy back in 2021 – were vehemently against the new gun laws, because members of both groups thought that the laws were unconstitutional; going as far to sue to temporarily halt the bill from becoming law. 

In total, ten new gun laws were signed, necessary to help curb gun violence in the commonwealth. The laws include universal background checks, where any gun seller, including those who privately sell and sellers at gun shows, must perform a background check on the person buying the gun.

In addition to universal background checks, “red flag” laws were also enacted, where at the request of a commonwealth’s attorney or police officer who submits an affidavit after an investigation, a judge can issue a 14-day “emergency substantial risk order” which would prohibit someone from having a gun if probable cause is found that the person is a risk to themselves or others if a firearm is in their possession.

In addition to the two major laws listed above, there were more gun laws enacted:

  • Formerly law from 1993-2012, the one-handgun-a-month law went into effect, with some exceptions: law enforcement personnel, correctional officers, antique firearms dealers, private security companies, and people with concealed carry handgun permits are allowed to purchase more than one gun every 30 days.
  • If someone is served with a permanent protective order, they must give up all of their firearms within 24 hours.
  • If a gun owner has their firearms stolen, or they are lost, they must be reported to officials within 48 hours.
  • City councils and boards of supervisors in cities and counties are allowed to restrict guns in places like government buildings, public parks and recreational areas, and outdoor areas being used during permitted events.
  • The penalty for recklessly leaving a loaded firearm around children 14-years-old and younger was raised from a Class 3 misdemeanor, to a Class 1 misdemeanor, which could carry jail time.
  • Any child care facility that is marked as a “family day home” must lock any/all firearms in a cabinet or safe at the facility during operating hours.
  • Trigger activators are banned, and people who possess them or sell them can be charged with a felony.
  • Gun safes that cost $1,500 or less are exempt from the retail sales tax.

A year after Virginia’s new gun laws took effect, state legislators also put forth new legislation that would address the “Charleston Loophole,” to expand the period of time a background check needs to be completed before any firearm could be transferred. HB 2128, introduced by then-House Majority Whip Alfonso Lopez, was signed into law by Gov. Northam in March 2021.
The gun control debate is still ongoing in the commonwealth, especially as the upcoming Congressional election looms in the future in November, and in the wake of two tragic mass shootings that took place in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas.

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