RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed seven new gun restrictions into law Friday morning while offering amendments to two others, winning praise from activists aiming to limit access to firearms.
“This is an exciting day for Virginia,” the Democratic governor said in a phone call after the signing event, which would have usually been held during an in-person press conference but was instead done in private due to the coronavirus outbreak. “We’re working very hard to keep Virginians safe and together we will all get through this and hope to be stronger for it.”
The nation’s only governor with a license to practice medicine pointed to his history as a pediatrician, treating children who have accidentally shot themselves, as part of the basis for his belief in gun control.
“We heard enough people say their thoughts and prayers were with families,” Northam said, repeating a mantra he’s used to highlight inaction in the shadow of mass shootings nationwide.
He added that more than 1,000 Virginians die due to gun violence every year, and the May 2019 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building also helped drive his desire to change the law.
“We lose too many Virginians to gun violence, and it is past time we took bold, meaningful action to make our communities safer,” the governor said.
Long a Republican stronghold, Virginia was home to some of the loosest gun laws in the mid-Atlantic. But when Democrats took control of both legislative chambers last year for the first time in over two decades, they brought with them a desire to change the state’s gun-friendly reputation.
Among the biggest changes is an end to the state’s so-called gun show loophole. Previously, guns could be sold between two people without a background check, but now all gun sales will require such screenings.
Virginia will also join 19 other states in enacting red-flag laws, which allow authorities to take firearms from someone if they are deemed a risk to themselves or others. Other changes include a return to the state’s one-handgun-a-month purchasing limit and stiffer penalties for failing to report stolen guns or allowing guns to get into the hands of children.
The governor’s proposed amendments to other pieces of legislation include a clarification for a law that would allow localities to ban firearms in publicly owned buildings such as city centers, schools and colleges. Another amendment expands punishments for those who are subject to protective orders, and allows enhanced punishments if they fail to turn over their guns and report that to the courts. Northam said this amendment was made at the request of domestic and sexual violence prevention groups.
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, praised Northam’s action on the same phone call, calling him the very definition of a “gun-sense champion.” Everytown spent millions in the state last year to help get other pro-gun control leaders elected and it worked.
“We saw Virginia Democrats rally around gun safety,” Feinblatt said, promising to use similar tactics in other states to help advance the group’s cause. “Many predicted flipping the Senate and House was off the table, but they were wrong... what happened has implications well beyond the commonwealth.”
Feinblatt said his group, founded by billionaire Mike Bloomberg, plans to spend $50 million to help flip legislatures nationwide this election cycle. He said polling showed voters were hungry for more gun laws.
“Virginia was not an outlier,” he said. “Across the country clear majorities of voters want action on gun safety.”
While Northam praised Everytown and Democratic lawmakers for their action on gun control during the past legislative session, he did have one regret: not passing an assault weapons ban.
Pointing to his experience as a medic in the Army treating soldiers during Desert Storm, the governor promised to return with a successful ban on “weapons of war” in 2021.
“We do not need these weapons on the streets,” he said. “If anybody thinks they are needed, I’d ask them to go into a mass casualty tent to get a glimpse of what they do to human beings.”
“I will not stop and that piece of legislation will be introduced to ban these weapons on our streets,” Northam added.
A bill aiming to ban assault weapons failed after some Democrats expressed concern with the vague language of the bill as well as how some of their rural constituents might react to the restriction. Notably, Everytown and other pro-gun control groups who lobbied lawmakers on the issue this year omitted an assault weapons ban from their list of priorities.
Friday’s passage of the gun control bills comes months after thousands of gun rights activists rallied at the Virginia Capitol in Richmond hoping to change legislators' minds. The event led to an emergency order banning firearms from capitol grounds.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League and organizer of the January rally, did not return requests for comment on the passage of the bills.
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