RICHMOND — The Democrat-controlled Virginia Senate passed three gun control bills Thursday as Republicans pushed back at the proposals, arguing that they target law-abiding gun owners.
The Senate voted along party lines on bills allowing localities to ban firearms from certain areas as well as restoring the repealed law that caps handgun purchases to one per month. On the bill to expand background checks to all firearm sales and commercial transfers, two Republicans — Sens. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, and Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico — joined Democrats.
Senators debated for nearly two hours on the floor about the gun control bills, just three of the dozens lawmakers will consider during this session. The three bills will head to the House of Delegates, so the final bills could look different.
“Ladies and gentleman, this is probably the first assault on the Second Amendment, and we’re going to see many after that,” Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, said about the bill allowing localities to regulate firearms.
That bill, from Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, would permit localities to prohibit firearms in buildings owned by the localities or used for government purposes, in public parks owned by the localities, and at permitted events. That power long has been sought by Roanoke City Council.
Democrats said the bill would reduce guns from being introduced into hostile situations, like protests. Republicans argued that the bill would create gun-free zones, putting them more at risk of violence.
“This isn’t about safety, this is about feeling good,” Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said. “That’s what this legislation is about.”
Obenshain said the bill was sending a message that the General Assembly is “hostile to the lawful possession of firearms.”
Surovell said some localities already have the authority to do what his bill offers, and his bill is just to extend it to other localities, if they choose to regulate firearms.
“We’re not casting aspersions on gun owners,” he said.
Thousands of gun control and gun rights advocates are expected to converge at the Capitol on Monday to rally and to lobby lawmakers. Democratic lawmakers have banned firearms from inside the Capitol and Pocahontas building, which houses lawmakers’ office. On Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam said a temporary state of emergency will be in place Friday through Monday, during which weapons will be prohibited in Capitol Square.
Stanley remarked about the metal fences that law enforcement have been putting up around Capitol Square.
“You all are afraid,” Stanley told Democrats, adding that they’re taking it out on law-abiding gun owners.
The Senate also passed a bill to reinstate the one-handgun-a-month law that a Republican-controlled legislature repealed in 2012 at the urging of then-Gov. Bob McDonnell.
The law was enacted in 1993 under Gov. Doug Wilder, a Democrat, to stem the illegal flow of firearms to the northeast by straw purchases in Virginia.
“Twelve handguns is more than enough for most citizens,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax. “If you need more, go to Texas. They don’t have any laws.”
Senate Democrats’ version of universal background checks will require any firearm sale and commercial transfer to require a background check.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, a moderate Democrat who enjoys hunting, offered a different version of the original bill, which was much stricter. It applied to all firearm transfers, but Petersen wanted to provide some leeway.
He also changed the bill to reduce the penalty from a Class 6 felony to a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Republicans had concerns about the commercial firearm transfer leading to criminal charges against people who don’t mean to break the law. For instance, a friend selling a gun to a friend would require proof of a background check.
The Northam administration favored the original bill, and gun control advocates have expressed dissatisfaction with the version Petersen offered. Petersen was aware of the criticism coming from both sides of the gun debate.
“This is a good piece of legislation,” he said. “I believe it’s going to save lives.”