In the first fight over gun rights in the new-look General Assembly, Democrats on Monday advanced several gun control measures.
The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed a one-handgun-a-month limit, universal background checks, a “red flag” law and giving municipal officials more local authority on guns. The bills now head to the full Senate.
All four ideas approved Monday are part of the Northam administration’s eight-part control package. Besides those eight, which include additional measures such as a requirement to report lost and stolen firearms and banning people with a restraining order against them from possessing a firearm, the administration isn’t taking a position on other gun control bills.
“For the first time in decades, common sense gun safety measures are finally advancing in the Virginia legislature,” Northam tweeted after the committee’s meeting. “This is the first step in the process — Virginians are demanding real action on gun violence, and they are watching.”
The committee, meeting in a room evenly split with proponents and opponents of gun control, approved each measure in 9-5 party-line votes. Some in the audience wore yellow “Background checks save lives” stickers while others wore orange “Guns save lives” stickers.
The committee’s endorsements come after Democrats on Friday banned guns in the state Capitol and the nearby Pocahontas Building, a move that led to long lines to gain entry into the buildings Monday morning.
The one-handgun-a-month law was in place from 1993 until 2012, when then-Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a repeal law. Proponents say it would help limit the number of guns that end up on the black market and used in crimes in other cities, such as New York.
“This legislation would help to curtail handgun trafficking,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, patron of Senate Bill 69.
Opponents said the bill limits law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights.
“Individuals should not be limited in the amount of firearms they choose to defend themselves and their family with,” said D.J. Spiker, the National Rifle Association’s Virginia state director.
The panel also advanced a measure on universal background checks, just not in its original form.
The committee backed Sen. Louise Lucas’ Senate Bill 70, but substituted language to say the background checks would apply only to gun sales and not transfers, a change Lucas and the Northam administration opposed.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, who proposed the new language, said he was open to revisiting it.
“This is the beginning of a process,” he said.
The bill that met the most objections — gun proponents in the audience criticized all four measures — was a red flag law. Senate Bill 240 proposed by Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, would remove firearms, through a legal warrant, from a person deemed “a substantial risk of injury to himself or others” through what is called an “extreme risk protective order.” Opponents of the bill say it could lead to unconstitutional searches of homes.
“If this law is to pass, it’ll be a time when you’ve not been accused of a criminal offense, you’ve not invited somebody to come to your house, there’s been no allegation of criminal activity, and whether you live in rural Virginia or downtown Richmond or downtown Norfolk, the government will come in and be able to search your house and you’ve not been accused — or alleged — to have committed any criminal offense,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover. “Every Virginian should be afraid.”
Red flag laws are in place in 17 states.
Dinwiddie County resident Richard Pyle called the bill “an affront to everything our Bill of Rights stands for.” Dinwiddie, along with 124 other counties, cities and towns in the state, has declared itself a “Second Amendment sanctuary,” something Attorney General Mark Herring said has no legal effect.
The final bill in the package taken up Monday was a measure by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. Senate Bill 35, which incorporated similar bills proposed by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, as part of Northam’s package, would allow individual localities to ban guns in public buildings and at parks and permitted events.
“We support the ability of localities to pass reasonable constitutional restrictions on firearms,” said Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran.
The issue was central leading up to the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, when protesters were allowed to carry guns.
Opponents of the measure, however, said it could endanger law-abiding citizens who wouldn’t be able to protect themselves.
“The last thing we need are more gun-free zones,” said Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins.
At the patron’s request, the committee on Monday also struck an assault weapons ban introduced by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.
Saslaw’s Senate Bill 16 — which was not among the bills Northam backs — didn’t include a “grandfather” provision for current owners of weapons deemed assault weapons, prompting concerns from gun rights supporters about confiscation. Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, is the House sponsor of the legislation the governor backs, House Bill 961.
Gun control supporters praised the bills the committee backed Monday. Others said the measures were “ill-conceived.”
“We are one step closer to a Virginia where the threat of gun violence is no longer present in the minds of residents,” said Molly Voigt, the state legislative manager for Giffords, an advocacy group started by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a 2011 assassination attempt in Arizona, and her husband, retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.
Said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham: “[The bills] do not make Virginians safer.”
Before legislators could debate the merits of the gun bills, they had to first enter the building, a task that proved time-consuming for many on Monday.
Credentialed lobbyists, media and staff members who previously weren’t subject to search now have to go through metal detectors as part of the new rules the Joint Rules Committee approved last week. Lawmakers are exempt from search.
The long lines caused by the change led House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, to ask Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, to “quickly revisit how to best implement your new policy.”
Capitol Police spokesman Joe Macenka said it is adding an “express lane” in the Pocahontas Building for people with credentials from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The line is for people with no bags, he said, and they will be hand-wanded. Macenka said earlier Monday that Capitol Police are asking those entering the Pocahontas Building to “do whatever possible to limit the number of items they bring.”
On the House floor, Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, argued that Democrats blindsided Republicans with a policy to “disarm law-abiding citizens.” Freitas challenged statements from Democratic leaders last week that the policy came at the recommendation of Capitol Police.
“Don’t try to pass it off as it was Capitol Police’s idea,“ Freitas said. “Don’t try to find scapegoats.”
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said in turn: “The policy to ban guns from this chamber and from this building was our idea, and we think it’s a good one.”
Even with the Capitol gun ban, Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, continued carrying a gun Monday.
Last year she wore a holstered .38-caliber revolver while presenting her bills in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee and subsequently on the Senate floor. She called the ban instituted last week “unconstitutional.”
“I’m following both the U.S. and Virginia Constitution today, the same one I swore to uphold last Wednesday so help me God,” she said, referring to last week’s swearing-in.
It is unclear when the full Senate will take up the gun control bills the panel endorsed Monday.