Virginians will be subject to more gun control under legislation Gov. Ralph Northam signed Friday that he and advocates say will save lives.
Northam signed five of the seven gun control measures his administration backed that cleared the legislature this year — bills that drew an estimated 22,000 protesters to the state Capitol in January. They were among the most controversial of a flood of progressive bills Democrats passed while in power for the first time in a generation.
“We lose too many Virginians to gun violence, and it is past time we took bold, meaningful action to make our communities safer,” Northam said. “I was proud to work with legislators and advocates on these measures, and I am proud to sign them into law. These commonsense laws will save lives.”
Northam on Friday also signed into law bills easing restrictions on abortion that Republicans had enacted while they controlled the legislature. Northam, while managing the state through the coronavirus pandemic, signed hundreds of bills this week, including measures allowing undocumented students to receive in-state tuition and requiring lawmakers to immediately disclose large donations made right before the legislative session.
The gun bills Northam signed were measures expanding background checks; mandating the reporting of lost and stolen guns; a measure meant to prevent children from accessing guns; reinstating Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month policy; and a “red flag” bill that would allow the temporary removal of guns from a person deemed “a substantial risk” to himself or others.
He proposed technical amendments to bills allowing local control of gun regulations in public buildings, parks and during events; and barring people subject to protective orders from having a gun.
His administration had supported eight gun control bills this session. The eighth, a proposed ban on assault weapons, died in the state Senate, which carried over the measure for study.
Northam vowed Friday to propose an assault weapons ban again next year.
“We do not need weapons of war on our streets,” he said on a press call with gun control advocates and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax.
Filler-Corn praised the bills that the legislature did pass.
“In November, Virginians called out loud and clear for meaningful legislation to address gun violence in the commonwealth. They demanded action and we delivered,” she said. “I am grateful to the governor for his leadership and for signing these bills that will save lives.”
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, raised issue with the timing of Democrats’ “victory lap,” calling it counterintuitive given the record gun sales reported by the Virginia Firearms Transaction Center for March — a total of 80,228 transactions, the highest total for any month on record.
“To do so at a time when we need all Virginians unified in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is counterproductive,” Gilbert said of the timing. “It was clear from the moment these bills were introduced that they would impact law-abiding gun owners far more than criminals. It’s an unfortunate last chapter in the story of Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to reshape Virginia.”
Last year, during a special session Northam called following the mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Republicans adjourned the gathering less than two hours after its start without voting on any of the gun control measures Northam had proposed.
That helped fuel a blue wave in the 2019 legislative elections that flipped the Republican-led House of Delegates and Senate to Democratic majorities.
Gun control advocates spent millions on last year’s statewide elections, where every seat in the legislature was up for grabs. Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, for example, spent $1.6 million in 2018-19, making it one of the largest donors that election cycle, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
“Voters were fed up with inaction; fed up with ‘thoughts and prayers’ and we replaced gun lobby politicians with gun-sense champions,” said Everytown President John Feinblatt on Friday.
The outside influence in a traditionally gun-friendly state, which is home to the National Rifle Association’s headquarters, served as a major point of contention during the debates on the gun control bills and during the January protest by gun rights supporters.
The gun rights proponents’ rally brought about 6,000 people inside Capitol Square — unarmed after Northam and Filler-Corn banned guns on the grounds and inside legislative buildings — and 16,000 more outside, where guns were allowed.
Attendees vowed to oppose the gun control measures — some chanting “we will not comply” — that Northam has now signed into law. The bills take effect July 1.
Still pending are Senate Bill 35 from Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and House Bill 421 from Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, which would allow localities to ban guns at events, parks and public buildings, which was an issue ahead of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Northam has proposed an amendment to clarify that colleges are exempt.
In the April 22 reconvened session, the legislature also will take up Northam’s proposed amendments to Senate Bill 479 from Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, and House Bill 1004 from Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News. As is, the bills would prohibit people with protective orders against them from having guns, require them to turn in their guns within 24 hours of being served with the order and to certify to the court that they’ve turned over the guns.
Northam’s proposed amendments would allow judges to hold the person in contempt of court if the individual did not comply with the certification requirements.
Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, called Friday a “monumental day.”
“Virginia will be safer thanks to universal background checks, extreme risk protection orders, and restoring a one-handgun-a-month policy,” he said. “I am proud to have worked side by side with our governor to get this done.”
Gov. Doug Wilder signed Virginia’s one-gun-a-month measure in 1993. It was in place until Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a measure to repeal it in 2012.
Northam has also signed bills to roll back restrictions on abortion.
The governor on Friday signed bills from Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. The bills, known as the Reproductive Health Protection Act, take effect July 1.
“No more will legislators in Richmond — most of whom are men — be telling women what they should and should not be doing with their bodies,” Northam said in a statement. “The Reproductive Health Protection Act will make women and families safer, and I’m proud to sign it into law.”
The measures repeal the state’s mandatory ultrasound law and 24-hour waiting period prior to abortion. They also roll back regulations McDonnell signed in 2012, which opponents called TRAP legislation — or “targeted regulation of abortion providers.”
“This is about protecting Virginians’ health, rights, and basic dignity,” McClellan said. “Today, we have finally put an end to these medically unnecessary barriers to women’s reproductive health care. Politicians should not interfere in women’s personal medical decisions, period.”
The bills prompted fierce debate in the House of Delegates and the Senate when they passed in January. In the Senate, Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, a Catholic, voted with Republicans against the bill.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke the 20-20 tie to pass the measure.
“Virginia women deserve access to health care free from interference from politicians,” Herring said. “This bill rolls back restrictions that are not evidence-based and presume that women have an inability to make their own health care decisions. I’m glad to see this bill signed into law.”
Victoria Cobb, the president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, called the timing of Northam’s bill signing, on Good Friday, “reprehensible and insulting.”
“His action today is a tragedy for women, unborn children, and the culture of our commonwealth,” she said.
While Northam signed the gun control and abortion bills, a number of prominent measures are pending.
For example, the chief executive has yet to act on bills to raise the minimum wage, decriminalize marijuana and give localities the power to take down Confederate monuments, among others. He faces an 11:59 p.m. Saturday deadline to sign, veto or propose amendments to legislation.
“I will meet that deadline,” he vowed at a news conference Friday.