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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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With Democrats in Charge, Virginia Lawmakers Eye Gun Control

After winning control of both legislative chambers last week, Virginia Democrats have set their sights on ending the so-called “gun show loophole” that allows for firearms transactions without background checks.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – The first time Kevin Long bought a gun was in a K-Mart parking lot. A lifelong Virginian and history buff, the weapon he purchased was a WWII-era Soviet pistol. While he was excited about it, he was shocked at how the sale went down.

“I filled out a bill of sale but did no background check,” he said of the experience. “Afterwards I felt kind of uneasy about it and looked up the laws and it turns out it was totally legal.”

He’s right. Virginia is one of more than 30 states that allow the sale of firearms between two people without a background check. All that is required is a verbal confirmation that you’re allowed to buy a gun - saying you’re not a felon or otherwise barred - and a state ID.

The law is often called the “gun show loophole” as the sales are typically associated with open-gun markets held regularly throughout the country, though gun-rights activists dispute the term.

Either way, after Democrats took over both chambers of Virginia’s General Assembly in last week’s election, ending the sale of firearms without a background check became a top priority for state legislators.

“If you want to sell a gun to another person you should be able to call the local police, they’ll run the background check for you,” said Delegate Mark Levine, a Democrat who oversees some of the state’s D.C. suburbs. “In a few minutes, you’ll be good to go.”

Levine has been filing bills that would restrict access to firearms since he took office a few years ago and every year the measures were killed by the Republican leaders.

He wasn’t alone in his efforts, especially after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach that left 12 people dead in May. Democratic Governor Ralph Northam called a special session over the summer to give legislators the chance to address gun laws, but it was ended in minutes by GOP leadership who instead called for the state’s crime commission to develop a report and recommend changes.

The report was released Tuesday and it offered no recommendations, saying “any changes are policy decisions which can only be made by the General Assembly.”

But Democrats say the bureaucratic passing of the buck is about to end when the next legislative session begins in January.

“Virginians are demanding real action to combat gun violence and save lives,” a Northam spokesperson said in an email following the report’s release. “That's exactly what they'll get on day one of this new legislature.”

Still, gun-rights activists fear Democrats and Northam will overreach in their efforts.

“The gun control measures proposed by Virginia legislators have nothing to do with reducing firearms crime,” said Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry trade organization.

He said laws proposed by the left in the past will unfairly impact legal gun owners instead of “taking the guns out of gang members hands.”

As for the private sale law specifically, Oliva wondered how changes would impact a grandfather who wants to hand his rifle down to the next generation or someone who gets a gun from a friend or family member when they need protection from a stalker. He pointed to efforts his organization has taken to fix the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. The group has spent years working with states to make sure they are submitting relevant information to the FBI so when the agency runs a background check, it catches those who aren’t allowed to own a firearm.

He said the effort has led to a more than 200% increase in the number of records being submitted.

“We want to make sure our communities are safe but we want to make sure we’re protecting people’s rights,” Oliva said in a phone interview.

But Virginia Democrats ran heavily on reforming gun laws in this year’s election. Exit interviews showed some longtime Republican voters found themselves voting blue this time because of the GOP’s inaction on gun laws. And polls are similarly unfriendly to the state’s long held tradition of easy access to guns. A Washington Post-Schar School poll from October showed 75% of voters put gun issues as a top voting priority and most supported tightening laws.

That gives Levine hope for his efforts this time around.

“Once we pass these laws I think people will see it’s reasonable,” he said, noting he hopes he can prove the right wrong after they spent the last election cycle claiming Democrats will take away legal guns if they win the statehouse.

“If you’re a violent criminal gang member then we want to take your guns,” he said. “But if you’re not violent or insane, we’re not out to take your gun.”

As for Long, who continues to collect historic guns, he’s on board with expanding background checks as well.

“I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s so politicized. People get so angry about having to do a background check to buy a gun,” he said. “It’s absurd.”

Specifics around how gun laws will change won't become apparent until bills are introduced in the coming weeks. The new Democratic-controlled Legislature meets in January and laws usually go into effect in July.

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