RICHMOND, Va. - Four gun-control bills sailed out of a Senate committee on Monday, as the General Assembly's new Democratic majority took up firearms legislation for the first time.
Thousands of gun rights activists tried to head off the restrictions, swarming a state Capitol where firearms were banned last week.
But the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced most of the gun bills proposed by Democrats, who wrested control of the state House and Senate in November in campaigns largely focused on guns.
Within the space of two and a half hours, the four bills cleared the committee and headed for the full Senate. They would require background checks on all firearms purchases, allow law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from someone deemed a risk to himself or others, let localities ban weapons from certain events, and cap handgun purchases at one per month, reinstating a law that was in place in the state from 1989 to 2012.
The hearing opened on the first business day since Democrats imposed a ban on guns in the Capitol on Friday. The ban was imposed by a joint House-Senate rules committee, which has the power to set policy for the Capitol and the adjacent Pocahontas Building without review from the full legislature.
The move angered Republicans accustomed to carrying firearms on the floor of the House and Senate, and it drew some gun rights activists to the Capitol Square on Monday, wearing bright orange "Guns Save Lives" stickers instead of concealed weapons.
"It's a wholesale assault on constitutional rights," said Lindsay Trittipoe, 61, of Richmond.
Concerned about a potentially violent backlash, the teenagers who usually work as House and Senate pages were given the day off, and a large number of State Police troopers were dispatched to help out Capitol Police.
Inside the Pocahontas Building, the National Rifle Association's lobbying arm rewarded activists with T-shirts and 30-round magazines, which did not hold actual ammunition.
Lines stretched for blocks as activists waited to pass through metal detectors at the front doors of the Pocahontas Building, the legislative office building included in the ban. Legislative staffers, who until Monday had been exempt from screening, were directed to another blocks-long line at a rear entrance.
Arnold Farber, a retired computer specialist from Hanover, said the gun ban and the gun control legislation Democrats have in the hopper prompted him to make his first trip to lobby lawmakers at the Capitol. He said he had never attended a gun rights event until his county - like more than 100 other counties, towns and cities in Virginia - recently declared itself a Second Amendment "sanctuary," meaning local law enforcement would refuse to enforce new gun restrictions.
"We never had an attack [on gun rights] like this before," said Farber, 73.
Democrats expect to adopt far-reaching gun control legislation this year, now that they have control of the state House, Senate and Executive Mansion for the first time in a generation.
Several of the 10 bills taken up Monday morning were similar and combined. And Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw, a Democrat from Fairfax, opened the meeting by moving to strike his own bill, which called for a ban on not only the sale but also the possession of assault weapons. The measure caused an uproar since it would have required people who legally purchased the guns in the past to give them up.
Democrats will later take up other bills, including those supported by Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, to ban the sale of assault weapons but not outlaw possession.
Sen. Chap Petersen successfully pushed to dilute a bill brought forth by Sen. Louise Lucas. As originally proposed, the measure would have required criminal background checks on any gun sales or transfers. Petersen convinced the committee to exempt transfers from the requirement.
Lucas and various gun control groups opposed the change, which critics said would create a dangerous loophole, but the committee voted for it.
The Capitol gun ban applies to lawmakers and visitors alike. Previously, visitors could carry guns into the Capitol and the House gallery with a conceal-carry permit, although they were not allowed in the Senate gallery. Even if lawmakers work in law enforcement, they are prohibited from entering the Capitol armed unless they are on duty in their law-enforcement capacity.
But as a practical matter, Capitol Police Col. Steve Pike said Friday, the policy will not be enforced with lawmakers, who will not be required to pass through metal detectors. He also noted that lawmakers are immune from prosecution during the session, under a law intended to ensure that their performance of the people's business is not impeded.
Northam said he, along with state and local law enforcement, is reviewing options for regulating weapons in outdoor areas of Capitol Square, "in light of incoming intelligence" - a reference to plans for a gun rights rally planned for Jan. 20. Organizers say that event could draw tens of thousands of heavily armed protesters, including militias and members of extremist groups from across the country.
Lines at the security checkpoints were a major source of complaint Monday. Lawmakers were able to breeze through but their staffers had to endure long waits to get into the legislative office building, along with lobbyists and members of the public. Some lobbyists with outdated credentials had their badges confiscated. One waiting in line could be overheard saying, "I'm starting to like Republicans more than I ever did before."
Even U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Deocrat and a former governor, was turned away when he tried to bypass the lines and get into the office building to deliver doughnuts.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, aShenandoah Republican, wrote to Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax and asked her to revise the policy so credential-holders could get in more quickly. But Del. Marcus Simon said the policy is not likely to change.
"Obviously there is some inconvenience and some growing pains and first-day issues - that's to be expected," Simon said. "But we remain committed to ensuring the safety of everyone who comes to the Capitol."
Most of the House Republican delegation held a news conference with lobbyists and members of the NRA as the Senate committee debated gun bills.
Gilbert told an emotional crowd that Democrats "are about to fracture this Commonwealth, turning it into two Virginias. We cannot have that," he said. "The notion that you can legislate away evil and bad things in this world is folly."
Gilbert said later that Republicans lack the numbers to block most of the Democrats' bills but will work to change them. "Any concessions we can achieve are certainly an improvement," he said. "That doesn't change the basis of our objection to the whole notion of gun control only impacting law-abiding individuals. . . . It's just a basic philosophical difference."
Gun control bills have yet to come before any House committees. Some of the most vocal gun rights Republicans have been removed from the Public Safety committee where those bills will get their first House hearings.