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After winning control of the Virginia statehouse, Democrats in 2020 are poised to pass gun control measures. It’s already set up a battle with local leaders in conservative parts of the state.
In the wake of a mass shooting this May at a Virginia Beach municipal building, state lawmakers clamored to do something to rein in gun violence.
For Democrats, led by Gov. Ralph Northam, the solution was simple: adopt stricter gun laws. But their efforts to enact new restrictions were thwarted by Republican lawmakers who argued changing mental health laws and harsher punishment for those who violate existing gun limits would solve the problem.
The calculus around gun legislation in Virginia, home to the National Rifle Association’s headquarters, changed with the November elections, when Democrats captured majorities in both the state House and Senate. And more conservative local governments across the state have taken notice and gone on the offensive—with counties, towns and cities passing resolutions declaring themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.”
Not only do Democrats have control of the statehouse for the first time in two decades, restrictive gun legislation is a possibility because of the kind of Democrats who were elected, said Kyle Kondik, an analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“It’s going to be the most liberal general assembly that Virginia has ever had,” he said. “Even when Democrats were in control in the past, it was an old-style Democratic legislature.”
Many of the Democrats who won this year, in contrast, had the support of gun control advocates, who invested big dollars in the races. They were spurred in large part by a recent, prominent loss. In July, two months after the Virginia Beach shooting, Northam convened a special session to take up gun control legislation. Eight bills were introduced, but Republican leaders adjourned the session in under two hours without debate on any of the measures.
This time around, state lawmakers have introduced at least 20 firearms-related bills ahead of the upcoming general assembly, which begins January 8. The eight previous Northam-backed firearms-related bills are expected to serve as a template for reform considered in the state’s forthcoming legislative session, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
Those measures included requiring background checks on all firearms purchases; a ban on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, bump stocks and silencers; allowing local governments to adopt stricter firearms laws than state law; a “red flag” measure allowing firearms to be confiscated from those deemed a danger to themselves or others; a one-gun-a-month purchase limit; and a requirement that lost or stolen firearms be reported to law enforcement within 24 hours.
Farnsworth noted that while the legislation would represent a big change in Virginia, it’s not particularly restrictive when compared to firearms laws on the books in more liberal states.
“If the fear is that the 2019 election made Virginia the East Coast version of California, that is an overestimation of where the Commonwealth is right now,” he said.
Despite Democrats’ newfound political dominance, Farnsworth said lawmakers might choose to moderate the measures they pass so the issue doesn’t backfire on them in the next election. The one-gun-a-month prohibition, red flag law and increased background check standards are proposals he views as more moderate measures with an easy chance at passage.
“Virginia Democrats have little interest in losing the majority they have waited so long to obtain,” he said.
In the Virginia Beach attack, a disgruntled city worker shot and killed 12 people inside a municipal building. Although that shooting spree spurred the most recent political action, it was not the first high-profile mass shooting in the state. Thirty-two people were killed in the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech. Gun control advocates also point to the daily toll of gun violence in the state, noting that an estimated 1,035 people were fatally shot in Virginia in 2017, including more than 600 people who committed suicide using a firearm.
But gun rights defenders in Virginia are also passionate. Since the November elections, gun owners have gathered in town halls across the state to rally against firearms law changes. Officials in more than 100 counties, cities and towns have preemptively adopted resolutions either backing the Second Amendment or vowing not to enforce new restrictive gun laws, according to the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
While resolutions are largely symbolic, some local law enforcement officials have pledged not to enforce new laws they view as unconstitutional, such carrying out court-ordered confiscation of firearms from otherwise law-abiding gun owners. (Gun confiscation is a potential scenario that could play out under a red-flag law, if a judge determined that a gun owner was in danger of using the gun against someone else or himself.) Similar "Second Amendment" sanctuary movements gained traction in other states, such as Washington and Colorado, after the passage of strict firearms laws.
Montgomery County, Virginia, which is located in the more rural, western part of the state, took up the issue this month. The county board of supervisors ultimately adopted a resolution declaring support for the Constitution. Todd King, the board’s chairperson, said he would have liked the resolution to have specifically declared support for the Second Amendment. But he hopes state lawmakers heard the concerns his constituents voiced at the hours-long board meeting.
“Some of these laws, if they come into effect, there are going to be a lot of Virginians who are felons the next morning,” said King, a gun owner and collector. “I hope this sends a message to Richmond that citizens do matter, that their opinions do matter.”
One piece of legislation that has particularly worried Second Amendment supporters is S.B. 16, which was introduced by incoming Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw. The bill would expand the definition of an “assault firearm” and ban their ownership or possession.
While Saslaw told the Virginia Mercury that it “makes sense” for those who currently own assault firearms to be grandfathered in under the law, the National Rifle Association has warned that doing so would set precedent for establishing a gun registry in the state.
Virginia state officials have fought back against the local resolutions. Northam said “there are going to be consequences” for law enforcement officers who do not enforce the state’s gun laws. Meanwhile, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who is also a Democrat, issued an opinion that declared the resolutions have “no legal effect” and that local jurisdictions and law enforcement “cannot nullify state law” and must comply with any enacted gun violence prevention measures.
Philip Van Cleave, the president of the VCDL, said his organization will oppose any legislation that affects law-abiding gun owners in a negative way.
“Bills that only affect criminals? On those, we can talk,” he wrote in an essay for Ammoland.com. “Other than bills that only affect criminals, any gun control the Democrats pass, they will own. Any Republicans that help them, are going to own that gun control, too.”
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.
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