Gun-related legislation approved by Virginia's General Assembly last year won't do much to reduce crime, local law enforcement leaders say.
The laws reinstated old legislation that limited an individual to one online gun purchase every 30 days and required background checks in third-party sales, including gun shows. Violations of either law are class one misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail or maximum $2,500 fine. The General Assembly also left gun regulations within state parks, public property and other areas at the discretion of local governments.
Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office Capt. Scotty Thompson said law abiding citizens likely won't find a problem with the regulations since they follow regulations to begin with. While some may perceive the changes as an inconvenience, he noted their ability to own and possess guns has not changed.
“The good people out here that buy guns, they go out here and do it the right way every day so I don’t know how this would hinder them,” Thompson said. “If this is the law and they’re the good folks that own guns, and do things lawfully, then it shouldn’t be a hindrance to them.”
Mount Jackson Police Chief Jeff Sterner said the new laws will not change how his department operates.
His department with enforce the new regulations the same as they did the old ones, Sterner said. They’ll check the firearm to make sure a gun is not wanted out of anywhere, and make sure the person who has it is not a convicted felon, who are prohibited from possessing guns.
Do the laws reduce crime?
No enforcement officials interviewed expressed an opinion that the laws will reduce crime.
Warren County Sheriff's Office Capt. Robert Mumaw said the hope that these laws will limit gun violence is a "pipe dream." Instead, he said perhaps the General Assembly should enact stiffer gun crime penalties. He noted that people who commit three drug offenses go to jail, and maybe so should somebody who steals a gun, uses one in a domestic incident or possesses one during a drug crime.
“We’re going to have to find a balance of gun ownership,” Mumaw said. “You have the right to bear arms. Should the government know how many guns you have, I don’t know, but...how about now a little bit more punishment or something?”
Mumaw and Front Royal Police Chief Kahle Magalis also noted that stricter gun laws may not reduce gun crimes. Washington, D.C., and Chicago have some of the strictest gun laws, but also have some of the highest rates of gun crime, Mumaw said. Conversely, Maine allows guns to be openly carry or concealment without permits, and Mumaw said the state has basically zero violent crime.
“Because everyone has a gun,” Mumaw said, adding that people don’t mess around with each other as a result.
According to the Education Fund to Stop Gun Violence, Warren and Shenandoah counties had a gun death rate per 100,000 people of 12.91 and 11, respectively. Those numbers were based on a 10-year average and adjusted for age groups that may be different than other parts of the state.
Petersburg City at 41.1, Dickinsen County at 30 and Danville County at 28.13, had the highest rate on the website, with the counties surrounding Richmond having a rate similar to Warren and Shenandoah Counties.
Mumaw, who said a large majority of people in Warren County likely own guns somewhere in their home, stated that gun violence in the state has gone up, with murders in the Richmond, Norfolk and Fairfax areas, among others.
Magalis and Mumaw noted that mental health problems tend to be an underlying cause of most crimes. Perhaps, they said, additional treatment services could help reduce gun crime.
Without being able to receive treatment for their mental health issues, people suffering from them turn to the streets, Mumaw said. There are regional jails, he added, but no regional mental health facilities, and so Western State, in Staunton, which has limited availability and likely overworked personnel, is relied upon.
“We are at a state in our Commonwealth where the mental health resources are woefully understaffed and underfunded,” Magalis said. “It’s huge for us."
Shenandoah Sheriff's Office Capt. Kolter Stroop said it's too early to tell if the laws have resulted resulted in a reduction of gun crimes.
As with any restrictions, Thompson said the background checks could cause an increase in black market activity, but his department has seen no indication this will happen. Magalis noted the legislation should not boost the gun "black market," as individuals involved in those sales don't follow laws anyway.
“Criminals break the law,” Magalis said. “And everybody else follows the law. So if a person is going to commit a crime with a gun, a law is certainly not going to limit him from getting a gun legally. He’s going to go find a black market gun, or do a third party sale and not follow the law, or steal it, or trade drugs for it and commit his crime.”
Sterner, a Second Amendment supporter, said he supports background checks and always has "because good people need to have firearms, not bad people."
Sterner added that the purchasing limit should not impact anyone to greatly because people are generally not stockpiling guns.
“Most people might buy one or two at most a year,” he said. “The die-hards, the collectors might want to try to do that, but for the most part people are not going out there buying guns every week.”
Prosecutor weighs in
Warren County Commonwealth's Attorney John Bell said he does not see the benefit to limiting a constitutional right on a "mere" hope it will do some good.
“[I’m] not a fan,” said Bell, an elected Republican with civil libertarian beliefs. “We will enforce it if need be and totally expect people to obey it. I just don’t see what good it succeeds in doing. When we had it previously I don’t know that it had any impact whatsoever on the criminal use of [weapons] in Virginia.”
“Having said that, it is law,” Bell said. “I’ve sworn to uphold that and will do so.”
Regarding the legislation allowing local governments to set gun regulations in certain areas including state parks and public property, he said that may result in nuanced changes making it necessary for gun owners to be mindful of which side of the sidewalk they are on.
“On one hand it's nice that the General Assembly is letting localities set their own rules…” Bell said. “It’s a shame that what they’re letting them set the rules on is a constitutional right.”
In June, President Joe Biden announced steps aimed at reducing gun violence across the country including going after gun dealers who break federal law and establishing strike forces in several cities to curb weapon trafficking. The plans also include seeking more money for the agency that tracks the nation's guns.
But the rest of his new strategy boils down mostly to suggestions for beleaguered localities. Biden encourages cities to invest some of their COVID-19 relief funds into policing. Additionally, he would like to see alternative crime reduction steps such as including community support and summer jobs for teenagers, who are often both targets and perpetrators of violence.
The president has already announced a half-dozen executive actions on gun control, including going after “ghost guns,” which are homemade firearms without serial numbers that are purchased without background checks.
Some of the Biden's measures may lead to more bureaucracy for small business owners, Bell said, adding that a lack of working class jobs is a cause of gun violence.