Virginia Senators Advance Package of Gun-Control Bills

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A Virginia Senate committee on Monday advanced several pieces of legislation that would limit access to firearms, inching them closer to certain passage in the full Democrat-controlled chamber.

“No more gun bills,” said Senator John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, as the Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee wrapped up a vote on one last measure.

A collection of firearms on display at the Colonial Shooting Academy in Richmond, Va., in July 2019. (CNS Photo/Brad Kutner)

While the handful of House bills that were passed in the committee still face a full vote on the Senate floor, Monday morning’s votes all but guarantee the passage of seven of Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s eight legislative priorities for guns.

“The governor is pleased to see these common sense measures advance,” Northam’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said in an email after the committee meeting. “Virginians are demanding real action to combat gun violence and save lives — that’s exactly what these bills will do.”

Following a May 2019 mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Northam set a list of gun law priorities that included everything from expanded background checks to an assault weapons ban. While much of those priorities like universal background checks, red flag provisions and a one-handgun-a-month purchase limit all passed in some substantial form, only the proposed ban on assault weapons failed when Democrats in the Senate joined their Republican colleagues in blocking it.

The seven bills now head to the Senate floor for a full vote. Considering much of Monday’s committee meeting saw the advancement of House versions of bills previously backed by the Senate, the news is good for gun-control advocates.

The committee hearing was not without dissent. Gun-rights advocates, who took to the Virginia Capitol by the thousands earlier in the legislative session, were present and while public comment was limited, shouting from the gallery was frequent.

“Lies!” shouted one attendee wearing a bright orange “guns save lives” sticker. “Communists!” shouted another.

Among those who got the brief chance to speak was Candy Ubanke of Doswell, an unincorporated community in central Virginia.

“I conceal-carry every day for the safety of my family and you are now restricting where I can go,” said the mother who was opposing a bill that would allow localities to ban carrying firearms in public parks. “I can’t protect my family if I can’t bring my guns. It creates gun-free zones where evil people can create a shooting gallery to do bad.”

The localities bills passed on a 9-6 vote.

Another tense exchange involved the passage of a red flag bill allowing police to seize someone’s firearms if they are “found by a judge to be a risk to himself or others,” according to the bill’s author, Delegate Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax.

Despite more heckling, Sullivan pointed to U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr calling similar laws “the single most important thing I think we can do in the gun-control area to stop these massacres from happening in the first place,” during his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate.

Gun control was a top priority that helped drive Democrats to their new majority during the 2019 election year. While Election Day interviews conducted by Courthouse News found at least one Republican who had switched parties because of the GOP’s long-held and staunch support for the Second Amendment, a Wason Center poll of Virginia voters from last summer showed strong support for gun control laws across party lines.

“Gun-control advocates are on their way to their best legislative session in decades,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Many Democrats ran on gun control and delivering what they promised is smart politics.”

While gun-control advocates were angry with the Democrats who switched votes on the assault weapons ban, they still expressed pride in the work they had done and promised to return to the issue during the 2021 session.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of gun bills this year. We carried over [the] assault weapons bill,” said Senator Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, during Monday’s hearing.

Petersen was among those who pumped the breaks on the controversial assault weapons ban.

“We don’t have to get everything done this year,” he said.

Among those who praised the Senate committee’s votes Monday was Jennifer Herrera, a volunteer with the Virginia chapter of Moms Demand Action.

“Virginians are fed up with inaction on gun violence, and this vote reminds us we finally have lawmakers who will do something about this crisis,” Herrera said in a statement after the hearing. She said her and her fellow volunteers held over 70 meetings with legislators to ensure the passage of background check and red flags laws.

Herrera also clarified that the shelved assault weapons ban was not part of her group’s agenda.

“We’ve seen real momentum on common-sense gun safety this session, and we’re grateful to lawmakers for continuing to advance bills that will save lives,” she said.

The full Virginia Senate will hear the remaining bills in the coming weeks. If and when they pass, they will head to Northam’s desk for his signature, which is required by mid-April for the bills to become law.

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