RICHMOND — Senate Democrats advanced another batch of gun control bills Monday, but a pair of Democrats — including Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath — broke with their party to halt a bill that would strengthen a law about adults recklessly allowing a loaded firearm to fall into the hands of a minor.
The Judiciary Committee forwarded bills to the Senate floor after three hours of debate that at times highlighted the reservations some Democrats have had about how certain laws would be applied.
Virginia law has, for more than a quarter-century, made it illegal to leave a loaded firearm with a child. A 1991 bill introduced by former Virginia Beach Sen. Moody Stallings prohibited “any person to recklessly leave a loaded, unsecured firearm in such a manner as to endanger the life or limb of any child under the age of 14.” The offense is a Class 3 misdemeanor.
A bill from Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, would have raised the age to 18 and made it a Class 6 felony, punishable by one to five years in prison. Howell amended her bill to keep the offense a misdemeanor.
She also added language to exempt hunting situations to assuage concern from critics who believed it would affect hunting. However, Steve Benjamin, who serves as counsel to the committee, said the bill wouldn’t criminalize youth hunting.
“We’ve done a lot with guns this session — a lot,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City. “But I think we’re starting to get more into intra-family dynamics than we are firearms.”
The committee voted 7-8, with Petersen joining Deeds and Republicans to block the bill.
The use of the law has been sensitive and complicated. Howell said the goal is to prevent teen suicides.
It often comes up in public discourse when children accidentally shoot themselves or others. Sometimes adults are charged. Other times, prosecutors file even tougher offenses, like felony child neglect. Prosecutors take factors into consideration and use their discretion about how to handle a case.
The House of Delegates passed its version of the bill last week on a 54-46 vote, with Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, joining Republicans. That bill now heads to the Senate, and it’ll have to get through the Judiciary Committee.
The Judiciary Committee forwarded a few other bills to the floor on party-line votes, including making it a Class 5 felony for people to assemble with weapons with the intent of intimidating people. Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said the bill was borne out of the 2017 Unite the Right rally, in which groups of militiamen with assault rifles patrolled the streets.
“Their appearance and their power and power of their weapons greatly increased the likelihood of greater violence, confusion and larger scale confrontation with legitimate law enforcement authorities,” Lucas said.
Petersen questioned Scott Miles, who spoke on behalf of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, about whether a law like this would have implicated any of the thousands of gun rights advocates who came to Richmond on Jan. 20 for a rally. Many of the people were armed, including with military-style assault weapons, and wearing military-style garb and masks.
“What’s the standard between what’s a First Amendment exercise and what’s ‘intimidation’?” Petersen said. “Because I don’t know if we have enough beds in our prison system for some of these situations.”
Miles said it’s up to a commonwealth’s attorney to prove assembled people carrying guns had an intent to intimidate.
The committee also backed a bill to add public, private and religious preschools and child care centers not operated at a residence to the list of schools where possessing a firearm on school property or on a school bus is prohibited. It also supported a proposal to create a voluntary “do no sell” list for people who want to suspend their ability to buy a firearm if they’re worried about their mental state and enhanced risk of self-harm from a firearm.
It also advanced a bill to ban bump stocks, which are devices that make semi-automatic rifles fire faster. After the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the Trump administration issued a regulation through the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms against the devices. State legislatures continue to consider their own bans in case future presidential administrations rescind the federal ban.