Early signals from an energized Democratic Senate, preparing to enjoy its first chance to rule in decades, has sent waves throughout Virginia as counties, towns and one city are up in arms over proposed legislation taking aim at Second Amendment rights.
While Virginia’s General Assembly does not convene until the new year, senators and delegates have taken advantage of pre-filing opportunities, submitting more than 200 bills and resolutions for the houses to take up when they arrive in Richmond.
Democrats, who enjoyed a surge in support last month, promised to put a progressive plan of action into place that touches on issues from health care to employer pay. However, the first pieces that are attracting attention and tension from constituents are the flurry of bills aimed at placing new restrictions on the types of weapons citizens can own, how many they can buy and where they are allowed to congregate with them.
Gov. Ralph Northam called on legislators to take action on gun control issues in July, days before a special session delegates attended to address questions of gun violence. That session was adjourned less than two hours after it started and Democrats were quick to remind voters in November that Republicans were quick on the draw to put an end to the session.
Now that senators have a safe margin, they are working to implement broad sanctions on the types of guns civilians can own, reinstate a 30-day window in between purchasing handguns, and outlawing gatherings for “paramilitary” activity.
State Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, is the incoming Senate majority leader and patron of the primary bill pushing counties around the state to pass or consider “Second Amendment sanctuary” resolutions.
Saslaw’s Senate Bill No. 16 sets out to amend the state code and add definitions of what law enforcement officers determine to be an “assault weapon.” The bill would designate the importation, sale or possession of an assault weapon a class 6 felony.
The bill’s language swipes at a wide range of firearms within the “center-fire” family — a term referring to the type of ammunition a gun fires.
In an attempt to lay restrictions on the ownership of a semi-automatic weapon — fully automatic weapons are already illegal to own in the United States without a license — the bill bans fixed and detachable magazines that hold more than 10 rounds; folding or telescoping stocks; pistol grips that protrude “conspicuously”; thumbhole stocks; other secondary grips that allow the user to hold the weapon with their non-trigger hand and a variety of attachments on rifles.
Similar language is found in the section restricting certain pistols — including stocks and secondary grips.
Shotguns that have revolving cylinders; fixed magazines that hold more than seven rounds and similar restrictions as those on rifles and pistols would also be defined as an assault weapon.
The language in Saslaw’s proposed bill is similar to the federal assault weapons ban congress passed in 1994 that expired 10 years later.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said he has seen similar bills introduced every year he has been in the General Assembly and they have never had any success.
“I believe it is serious overreach,” Obenshain said. “It clearly infringes on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Virginians.”
At the local level, counties are trying to keep Richmond from stepping on their rights with Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions. The number of Virginia counties that have adopted these resolutions has skyrocketed in recent weeks, resulting in 43 out of the state’s 95 counties adopting resolutions.
The sanctuary push began in the western United States when Washington and Colorado implemented similarly strict gun laws. Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which circulated the draft resolution Shenandoah County based its Second Amendment resolution on, said the group has seen massive support up and down the state, including in liberal districts such as Fairfax.
"Basically, what the governor and Sen. Saslaw did with their saber-rattling is wake up a whole bunch, a massive number of gun owners,” Van Cleave said. “And these gun owners are not happy.”
Critics, skeptics and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring say the sanctuary resolutions are symbolic more than anything.
“These sanctuary resolutions have no legal effect whatsoever,” Herring told WRIC news in Richmond on Thursday. “It’s really the gun lobby trying to scare a lot of people.”
Katherine Morrison, chair of the Shenandoah County Democratic Committee, said the committee has not taken a position but she believes the sanctuary resolutions are symbolic and a tool to mobilize a Republican base unhappy with the way the November election went.
“This is just an effort by the Republicans who lost control of the state legislature to rile up their base,” she said. “And they know this is an issue that riles.”
Van Cleave, however, said the resolutions offer counties an opportunity to pass resolutions that have teeth.
Counties that pass these resolutions, he said, have the authority to tell police chiefs not to enforce these laws or risk losing their jobs.
The prospect of ignoring laws the legislature might pass — Morrison repeatedly returned to the fact the proposed legislation has not been through any kind of committee or editing process — is an “outrage,” she said.
“To me, we are a nation of laws and not men, and we all follow laws we don’t particularly want to follow,” Morrison said. “That’s the democratic process. The majority wins and then compromises with the minority and makes policy.”
Gun owners would also be prohibited from having any of the parts required or designed to convert a firearm into an “assault firearm” as the bill defines it.
According to the proposed bill’s language, “It is unlawful for any person to import, sell, manufacture, purchase, possess, or transport an assault firearm. A violation of this section is punishable as a Class 6 felony.”
Opponents of the bill claim the new law would turn thousands of law-abiding firearm owners into felons overnight.
“These are not scary guns [or] specialty guns,” Obenshain said about the new definitions of what changes a firearm into an assault weapon. “This is how they come.”
Saslaw is also shepherding a bill that, if passed, would reimpose a restriction on handgun purchases. Senate Bill No. 22 would amend the state code to include a cooling period between handgun purchases for most Virginians.
The bill would make purchasing more than one handgun in a 30-day period a misdemeanor.
Provisions in the bill are made for people who apply for and pass an enhanced background check, allowing them to obtain a certificate from the Department of State Police; law enforcement officers acting in their capacity as officers; Virginians who have concealed carry permits and for purchasing antique firearms.
While Saslaw’s proposals would affect individual gun owners, Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, has submitted Senate Bill No. 64, which would amend Virginia’s state code regarding paramilitary activity.
Lucas’ proposal would add a section to the state code banning the assembly of a group “with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons by drilling, parading, or marching with any firearm, any explosive or incendiary device…”
Opponents of gun control measures took to Facebook after seeing drafts of Lucas’ bill, questioning whether it would pose problems for firearm safety courses or 4-H firearm classes.
Lucas’ bill only adds a third classification of unlawful assembly. Assemblies designed to train people to use firearms with the intent to cause civil unrest are already a part of Virginia state code.
Democrats have at least a dozen other firearms-related bills on the table ready for discussion and action when it convenes on Jan. 8. During that time, legislators will review and reconstruct pre-filed bills as well as work through the timelines that would go along with any changes made to laws that are already on the books.
In a November interview with NPR, Northam said he did not plan on overseeing any weapons confiscation, that the first step was to put a stop to the purchase and selling of assault weapons.
Obenshain said he hasn’t heard any rumblings of discussions about stepped measures such as grandfather clauses, allowing citizens to keep weapons they have before the law would go into effect on July 1.
“They’re not talking about grandfathering because that’s not what they want,” Obenshain said.
Van Cleave said many gun owners aren’t interested in compromises such as grandfather clauses.
“We’re not going for compromise on this,” he said. “We don’t want to give up the rights of the next generation.”
Without clear lines of how the bill will be implemented and managed, Obenshain said he sees few ways of it taking effect without a run of confiscation “without the due process of law,” even if that isn’t spelled out in the bills.
“They’re not saying it,” he continued, talking about confiscating weapons the new bill would outlaw, “but make no mistake, that’s what this bill does.”
State Sens. Saslaw and Lucas did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Download the full texts of the bills online:
Senate Bill No. 16 (assault weapons ban): https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?201+ful+SB16
Senate Bill No. 22 (handgun restriction): https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?201+ful+SB22
Senate Bill No. 64 (paramilitary activity): https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?201+ful+SB64