Last year's mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut has already prompted a heated debate about gun control in Virginia, where the upcoming session of the General Assembly is likely to feature a number of bills on both sides of the issue. Advocates for gun control will seek to force individuals to report stolen firearms within 24 hours of the theft and limit the number of bullets that are allowed in ammunition clips. Advocates for wider availability of guns are likely to push to allow concealed weapons on college campuses and in airports.
“Democrats have felt a lot more emboldened to talk about limiting access to certain kinds of guns and certain kinds of ammunition,” said Kyle Kondick, analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “It does seem like the pro-gun rights people have not been as vocal as the anti-gun people, at least not yet.”
But the gun-rights lobby has traditionally had a very strong lobby in Richmond, especially now that Republicans are in control of both chambers and the governor’s office. Last year, for example, the newly elected Republican assembly overturned a longstanding ban preventing individuals from purchasing more than one handgun a month. Many Northern Virginia Democrats say they often feel frustrated by the tone in Richmond.
“It’s really hard to predict what the thinking is of some colleagues who would like to see a more heavily armed society,” said state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30).
VIRGINIA HAS STRONG LAWS protecting the rights of its citizens to carry and use guns, a tradition that dates back to English common-law instituted when the commonwealth was a British colony. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gives Virginia a score of 11 out of 100, describing the commonwealth as having “weak gun laws that help feed the illegal gun market, allow the sale of guns without background checks and put children at risk.” But many Republicans say no change to the law could have prevented the mass shootings that happened last week.
“Just because you pass a law doesn’t mean you’re going to stop it. I mean, there’s millions and millions and millions of guns in America,” said Del. Dave Albo (R-42). “So when somebody wants to pass a law that says no one can have a gun, does any rational person think that would work?”
One issue that comes up again and again each year is the so-called “castle doctrine,” sometimes known as “stand-your-ground” legislation, that would protect individuals from being sued if they fatally shoot an intruder. That hasn’t passed, but other measures increasing the availability of guns have been successful. One overturned a longstanding ban against individuals purchasing more than one handgun a month. Another successful bill allows local government employees to bring concealed weapons onto government property.
“I’ve been very surprised by what I’ve seen in Richmond,” said Del. Scott Surovell (D-44). “We’ll find out this session whether people have changed their point of view about this.”
THE COMING SESSION is likely to see legislation that would require Virginia to give reciprocity to out-of-state concealed weapons permits. Legislators are also likely to debate a measure that would make it a Class 5 felony to provide false statements on a criminal history background check. Yet another potential bill would provide information from the background check to the U.S. Attorney General for a National Instant Criminal Background check. And more legislation is in the works.
“In light of last Friday's events, I feel morally compelled to introduce concrete legislation in the General Assembly Session in January,” said state Sen. Donald McEachin (D-9). “Over the coming weeks, I will consult with my fellow legislators and announce specific plans that will help stem this horrific tide of gun violence.”
But the debate won’t be limited to guns.
“To me, the one common problem in most of these cases you’ve seen recently, which is the guy who shot the congresswoman, the guy who was in the movie theater, the guy in Connecticut, was that they all had severe mental health problems,” said Albo. “Is the reason we are seeing more of these because more people are being mainstreamed? I don’t know, and I think that’s a question that needs to be asked.”