As thousands of protesters poured into Richmond on Monday legislators inside continued to discuss the role guns will play in Virginia’s future.
Democrats rode a wave of pro-gun control sentiment into leadership and a majority of the statehouse from top to bottom in November. Calls for restricting access to a wide swathe of firearms, increasing the scrutiny applied to prospective gun owners and enacting “red flag” laws that keep or take guns out of the hands of people deemed dangerous were catalysts for Democratic campaigns around the state.
Residents latched on to many of the proposals and claimed they were violating constitutional rights afforded them in the U.S. Constitution as well as Virginia’s constitution. In response, more than 100 towns, cities and counties passed Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions that attempt to curb Richmond’s ability to control what they do with their guns.
Thousands of people promised to attend a rally on Monday to show support for gun rights and insisted the proposals in the halls of the capitol were unconstitutional. While many of the signature bills have been moved out of their respective committees in the Senate the sweeping assault weapons ban is still in limbo.
On Jan. 13, four bills moved out of the Senate Judiciary Committee but Sen. Dick Saslaw, the majority leader from Springfield, asked the committee to strike his signature bill, which would ban “assault weapons.” The bill resembled the 1994 assault weapons ban passed by Congress and expired in 2004.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said that while Saslaw’s bill was dead there was still movement by Democrats to keep an assault weapons ban on the table.
On the House of Delegates side of the Capitol Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, filed his own assault weapons ban. While similar to Saslaw’s, Levine’s bill includes a provision for gun owners who possess weapons that would become illegal under the new law. Those owners would be allowed to keep their weapons if they obtain a permit from Virginia State Police to possess them.
This key provision separates his bill from Saslaw’s bill, Levine said in a phone call on Monday.
“The problem is that a lot of people misunderstand his bill as mine,” he said. “The heart of what I know to be different is that my bill allows gun owners who currently have assault weapons to keep them.”
Levine’s bill is the one proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam, and Levine said it has the full backing of the administration.
The bill would limit the places someone with a permit would be allowed to have their weapon, however. Permitted holders would be allowed to have their weapon on their property or on someone’s property who has permitted them to use it; a shooting range; while hunting or while surrendering the weapon to law enforcement agencies.
State police would also be directed to “enter the name and description of a person issued a permit in the Virginia Criminal Information Network,” for law enforcement agencies' “investigative purposes.”
Levine said his bill draws on the same assault weapons ban Saslaw’s did and pointed to the reported success of that bill in seeing the number of mass shootings drop over the decade it was in effect.
“No law is perfect but they reduce the incidents of mass shootings,” Levine said. “The goal of the bill is to take these weapons that are commonly used by mass shooters and make them harder to obtain, harder to transfer.”
“We’re trying really hard to separate guns used for hunting, target shooting, guns used for self-defense and guns used for mass murder,” he continued. “It’s a tough line to draw but we can actually help distinguish between the two … no line drawing is perfect, particularly at the margins.”
Despite the emphasis on removing a range of rifles and extended magazines from circulation handguns are a more common tool for mass shooters.
Every Town, a gun safety research outfit and support fund, found that between 2009 and 2018, 81% of mass shooters used a handgun. Of the 194 mass shootings over that time, the type of weapon used has been identified in 155 of them. In 60% of them, only a handgun was used.
Assessing mass shootings in the U.S. between 1982 and 2019, Statista, a statistics and data platform, found that 142 handguns were used in 94 mass shootings, compared to 55 rifles in 47 mass shootings and 30 shotguns in 26 mass shootings.
While delegates hash out the efficacy of the bill, voters who believe the bill to be unconstitutional need to consult the courts, Levine said.
“The courts decide what violates the Second Amendment,” Levine said. “Courts have consistently found these bills to be constitutional”
Levine said he knew that many voters disagreed with his and other Democrats’ policy prescriptions and said that he respected those differences but believes more voters side with his ideas than oppose them.
“I would simply say those who agree with me won the election because more agree with me than disagree with me,” he said. “Generally, I believe more Virginians agree with us than disagree with us, and that’s what elections are about.”