Democrats avoided taking up the most controversial gun-control bills on Monday but plowed ahead with four others as they move to take advantage of their majority.
The Senate Judiciary Committee had a full docket Monday morning as the fourth day of the 2020 General Assembly session got underway. Lined up at the top were 10 firearms-related bills ranging from enhanced background checks to targeted bans.
Before the committee got to work members took Sen. Dick Saslaw’s, D-Springfield, Senate Bill 16 off the table — putting a hold on the sweeping assault weapons ban that garnered so much attention leading up to the session.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Saslaw asked the committee to take up the bill, even though it wasn’t on their docket, and then asked members to strike the bill, removing it from the list of pending legislation.
Despite the apparent victory for Republicans who staunchly oppose the ban, Obenshain said there are two other bills in the pipeline that Democratic leadership has expressed support for.
“I would expect it’s going to resurface in a matter of days,” Obenshain said. “While Sen. Saslaw’s bill is gone, the debate, the fight over the subject matter of that bill is far from over.”
Far from backpedaling, Democrats unleashed their newfound authority in passing four bills out of the committee — enacting a one-handgun-a-month rule, putting a red-flag law in place, allowing localities to ban guns at permitted events and broadening the scope of background checks.
Obenshain said he was surprised when gun bills came up on Monday after the chairman told him last week the bills would be put on hold because one Republican member would be absent. Obenshain said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, chairman of the committee, told him his caucus overruled him and forced him to put the gun bills back on Monday’s docket.
Monday’s victories for Democrats were passed along party lines, though one Democrat, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, did push back against his colleagues in one instance.
Senate Bill 70 added language to require background checks for, “all firearms sales or transfers” in Virginia.
Petersen said the bill was written to fill a gap between federal law and state law. His amendment, he said, removed the necessity to conduct background checks for firearms transfers and limit them to sales.
“The word transfer is obviously a very open-ended word,” Petersen said. “It’s not defined under the Virginia code.”
The goal of the bill is to keep people who are not allowed to buy guns from buying them, he said. When the net is too broad, law-abiding gun owners could get caught up, he said.
Despite the amendment, each of the Republicans in the committee still voted against the bill — a situation Petersen said he expected.
“If you’re in this business, you get push-back,” he said. “I think, to be honest, you’ve got two sets of people looking at these bills — you’ve got people who have never owned a gun in their life and you’ve got gun owners.”
Gun owners looking to bring their weapons to events to protest or who carry them out of habit may run into problems with another bill moved out of the Judiciary Committee on Monday.
Senate Bill 35 gives localities the authority to tell gun owners to leave their firearms at home when attending some events.
If approved, local governments will have the authority to keep firearms and ammunition out of events that require a permit. Local governments don’t have that authority now because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, Obenshain said.
“With this, you’re going to have a patchwork of ordinances across the commonwealth,” he said. “People are not going to know from one county or town or county to the next which streets are off-limits.”
Legislators took their first shot at firearms on Friday when the House rules committee passed a ban on guns at the Capitol.
Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson, released a statement on the move Friday, condemning the process — passing a rule with short notice and keeping the vote to a committee rather than passing it on to the floor.
“Democrats hold majorities in both chambers and can pass whatever policy they wish,” his statement read. “However, today’s action will ensure this policy takes effect without a vote from the vast majority of legislators.”