RICHMOND—Virginia Democrats on Thursday moved one step closer to bringing more gun control to Virginia.
The state Senate approved a one-handgun-a-month limit, universal background checks, and giving municipal officials more local authority on guns. A fourth bill, commonly referred to as a “red flag” law, was not voted on.
“We have to do something,” said Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax.
All three ideas approved Thursday are part of the Northam administration’s eight-part gun control package, which also includes an assault weapons ban, a requirement to report lost and stolen firearms, and banning people with a restraining order against them from possessing a firearm. The administration isn’t taking a position on other gun control bills.
Democrats say the bills approved Thursday will improve safety in the state, while Republicans contend that gun control infringes on law-abiding citizens’ rights.
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired of gun violence,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton.
“This is a constitutional right,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. “You can’t pick and choose. The Bill of Rights is 10. It’s all 10 and we ought to be protecting all of them.”
The bills, approved in committee earlier this week, are the first to clear a legislature in which Democrats now hold a majority. Gun issues were a key part of the 2019 elections, when every General Assembly seat was on the ballot, and garnered more attention after a disgruntled city employee killed 12 people in Virginia Beach on May 31.
A special session that Gov. Ralph Northam called in July to consider gun control legislation ended in less than two hours, with Republicans calling it a political stunt. Northam called the Republican inaction “shameful.”
Senate Bill 35, the first gun measure the chamber endorsed, allows localities to ban guns at events, parks and public buildings, an issue leading up to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. While the bill’s patron, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said the bill “does not change Virginia law that much,” Republicans said it would create gun-free zones that would place people in danger.
“It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” said Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, before the 21-19 vote.
Also in a 21-19 vote, the Senate restored a one-handgun-a-month law that was in place from 1993 until 2012, when then-Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a repeal measure. Proponents say the bill, Senate Bill 69, would help limit the number of guns that end up on the black market and used in crimes in other cities.
“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.”
Saslaw highlighted that, with the law in effect for 19 years, someone could have bought 228 handguns.
“If 228 handguns isn’t enough for you, there’s something gone terribly wrong in your life,” he said.
The Senate also approved universal background checks on all sales of guns, a bill that drew some bipartisan support. Republican Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico County and Emmett Hanger of Augusta County voted for Senate Bill 70.
“It’s a reasonable measure,” Dunnavant said. after the vote, calling it a “good, preventative measure that is not an unreasonable and undue infringement on people’s time or freedoms.”
The bills’ passage came amid a legal fight over whether gun-rights advocates can carry firearms during a large-scale rally planned for Monday. A Richmond Circuit Court judge denied a bid by gun-rights groups for an injunction to block Northam’s temporary ban on guns in Capitol Square from Friday evening to Tuesday evening.
Northam has declared a state of emergency. Last week Democratic lawmakers on the Joint Rules Committee voted to ban guns from inside the Capitol building and the Pocahontas Building.
All three bills now head to the House of Delegates, which is considering its own gun control measures. Democrats hold a 55-45 majority in that chamber.