Virginia Democrats Advance Gun-Control Bills Despite Resistance

Gun rights protesters hold signs Monday before the start of a meeting of the Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Even with guns rights activists lined up by the hundreds outside a state Senate committee door, Virginia Democrats voted Monday to advance a number of controversial firearm restrictions.

The meeting of the recently renamed Senate Judiciary Committee was packed to the brim with folks on both sides of the gun control debate. Bills that will require universal background checks for all gun sales, create a red flag law, reinstate a one-handgun-a-month purchase limit and grant authority to localities to limit guns in city buildings and at permitted events all passed along party lines.

A main concern for Second Amendment supporters in the 2020 legislative session is an assault weapons ban bill from Senator Dick Saslaw, D–Springfield. While his bill wasn’t on Monday’s docket, the panel moved to kill it for the session in the face of strong resistance. This caused some consternation from senators on the right, who considered the strike a violation of Senate rules.

“We’re walking away from tradition here,” said Senator Mark Obenshain, R–Harrisonburg, who argued pulling the bill without having it on the docket would rob constituents of the chance to speak to it.

But the majority-Democrat committee appeared unbothered. Advocates instead say that any bill that would limit gun access breaks from tradition in Virginia’s governing body.

While the building was packed with gun rights advocates, the issue of control in Virginia was front and center during the 2019 election cycle following the murder of 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building earlier that year. While that wound was fresh for many in the room, the state was among the first to see the national wave of mass shootings when 32 people were killed and 17 others were injured by student Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech in 2007.

Among those who fell victim to Cho’s gunfire was Colin Goddard, who was shot four times during the incident. Goddard’s father Andy became an advocate for gun laws shortly thereafter, becoming the legislative director for the Virginia Center for Public Safety. After over a decade of calling for new laws, Monday was the first time he saw his work come to fruition.

“The tradition, Mr. Obenshain, is the person in command gets to make the rules and you’re no longer in charge,” Goddard said in reference to the Republican lawmaker after the meeting. “New traditions start today.”

Goddard wasn’t totally pleased with Monday’s votes. He believes some amendments that were passed created watered down laws to appease gun supporters.

The National Rifle Association, which is headquartered in northern Virginia, was unsurprisingly critical of the votes.

“Regrettably, Virginia lawmakers approved a series of measures today that will make it harder for law-abiding Virginians to protect themselves, while doing nothing to stop criminals,” NRA spokesperson Catherine Mortensen said in a statement following the committee meeting.

Still, it was Virginia voters who helped create the new Democratic majority that is friendly to gun control.

Among those who knocked on doors, organized volunteers and eventually elected those members was Courtney Champion with the Richmond chapter of Moms Demand Action. The national gun control group poured money into local races, but Champion said she was inspired to join the movement after her daughter had to participate in an active-shooter drill in her first year of school.

“There’s no reason my 5-year-old should live in this culture of fear with our lawmakers doing nothing,” Champion said at a lobbying event last week. She and other volunteers, clad in red shirts, organized at a local hotel before trying to meet with their legislators to advocate for what they called sensible gun laws.

Top on their list is mandated background checks on all firearm sales and the creation of a red flag law.

Twenty-one other states have universal background checks while red flag laws have started to pass more recently as states respond to the wave of gun violence making headlines across the country. While gun rights activists argued both measures, and others taken up Monday, violated their Second Amendment rights, Democrats were confident their passage would both save lives and survive legal challenge.

“Today, the [Senate committee] passed four common sense, widely supported, evidenced based firearm violence prevention laws that will make Virginia safer,” tweeted Senator Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, a longtime state lawmaker and member of the Judiciary Committee.

But NRA members were out in full force Monday. Among them was Dr. Dennis Petrocelli, a Richmond-based medical doctor and volunteer with the gun rights group. While his love of guns only started a year ago after firing off some rounds at a local shooting range, he was among those who waited in line Monday morning to hear the bills he opposed get heard.

“[Democrats] have woken up an element of this commonwealth who are not even on the radar,” Petrocelli said in a phone interview ahead of Monday’s hearing. He pointed to the roughly 100 localities around the state that have voted to become Second Amendment sanctuary cities, promising to not enforce any new gun laws passed by the state legislators.

While the state’s Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring has said such local laws are unenforceable, that hasn’t stopped Petrocelli and others from promising to fight back.

“We’re going to get people registered and active and they’ll donate to the legal fund to fight these new laws,” he said.

Monday’s vote advanced a number of bills that will now head to the Senate for a full floor vote. If they pass as they are expected to, they will head to the House of Delegates in about five weeks at the midpoint of the annual legislative session. The measures are also expected to pass the House, which will put them on the desk of Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, who has made tightening gun laws a top priority.

“It’s clear that a majority of Virginians support these measures,” the governor said at the start of the session, pointing to polls that show new gun laws are highly supported by much of the state. “Virginians spoke in November, and they expect votes and laws to make Virginia safer.”

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