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Gun Violence Prevention, Criminal Justice Reform Emerge as Focuses for Arlington Lawmakers

A new year brings a renewed focus on gun violence prevention, criminal justice reform and some local issues for Arlington’s state lawmakers.

The county’s legislative delegation is gearing up to head back to Richmond next month, as the General Assembly kicks off a new session on Jan. 9.

That means that many of three state senators and four delegates representing the county have been busy crafting legislation for the 46-day “short session” of the state legislature, and they’ve readied dozens of bills for lawmakers to mull in the coming weeks.

Legislators of both parties expect that sparring over the budget will dominate the proceedings — Gov. Ralph Northam and Republicans are already at odds over how to spend an extra $1.2 billion in revenue generated by changes to the federal tax code. The looming state elections (where all 140 lawmakers will be on the ballot) will also provide a bit of a distraction, particularly as Republicans defend narrow, one-seat majorities in both the Senate and House of Delegates.

Yet a review of the General Assembly’s online database shows that Arlington’s delegation has a raft of smaller bills already written, including a variety of efforts lawmakers have tried before and even some new creations.

Some bills look designed to address some Arlington-specific issues, while others have much wider impacts.

For instance, state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st District) is introducing new legislation that would specifically give Arlington officials control over the “regulation and licensing” of all childcare facilities and providers in the county. The County Board currently has the ability to issue use permits to facilities of certain sizes, but has spent months now studying potential policy changes to make all childcare more accessible and affordable in the county.

Sen. Janet Howell (D-32nd District) is also backing a bill that would give Northern Virginia localities, like Arlington, full power to set their own school calendars. The legislation seems to be similar to a bill Favola previously contemplated carrying that would end the infamous “King’s Dominion Rule” barring most school systems from starting class before Labor Day.

Favola expressed optimism that the Republican chair of the Senate’s Education and Health committee could agree to pass such a bill, ending Arlington’s long fight over the issue. Howell, the longest serving member of the county’s legislative delegation, also sits on that committee.

Notably, none of the county’s representatives in Richmond have put forward a bill to give Arlington the power to change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway, just yet. Lawmakers previously warned the Board that they’d be hesitant to back such an effort this year without more support from the business community, or perhaps Amazon’s intervention, given Route 1’s proximity to the tech giant’s future headquarters.

Instead, most of the lawmakers representing sections of Arlington have put a clear focus on one issue, perhaps above all others: gun control.

Republicans in Richmond have steadfastly refused to advance most firearms-related legislation over the years, but county lawmakers seem ready to renew many of their legislative pushes on the issue this year.

Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th District) is re-introducing a bill that would allow police or prosecutors secure a two-week ban on buying or owning a gun if they believe they present a “substantial risk of injury to himself or others.” A judge would ultimately get to decide if the ban stands, and if it should be extended for a period up to six months.

Sullivan has twice seen similar legislation left to die in committees: one bill failed in 2018, another in 2017.

Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30th District) is also bringing back legislation to ban devices that increase the rate of fire of semi-automatic rifles, commonly known as “bump stocks.” Lawmakers across the country worked to ban the devices after one was used in the mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert last year; Ebbin’s bill on the subject died on a party-line vote in committee last session.

Howell is also re-upping legislation that would make it a felony for anyone to leave a “loaded, unsecured” firearm in the presence of anyone under the age of 18. It’s only a misdemeanor under current state law, and Howell’s effort to make the change died on a party line vote in committee earlier this year.

She’s also reintroducing a bill to make it a felony for anyone who is subject to a “permanent protective order” over fears that they may be violent to own a gun. Howell previously succeeded in establishing a misdemeanor penalty for the practice in 2016; her push to upgrade it a felony passed one committee last year before failing on a party-line vote in another.

Other bills backed by Arlington legislators would address inequities in the criminal justice system more broadly.

For example, Ebbin is trying once more to decriminalize the possession of marijuana, imposing fines on people who are caught with small quantities of the drug in lieu of jail time. He’s seen similar efforts fail, often on party-line votes, in the last four legislative sessions.

Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th District) is also backing what appears to be new legislation to require state corrections officials to produce an annual report on how many people are held in solitary confinement in Virginia prisons, and what steps workers take to address their mental health needs. Virginia has begun moving away from the practice, as it’s increasingly been criticized nationwide, but some reports indicate that the state still holds large numbers of inmates in solitary confinement at some of its most secure facilities.

Dels. Mark Levine (D-45th District) and Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) are the lone Arlington representatives that have yet to pre-file any of their own legislation ahead of the new session, but have signed on as cosponsors of many other bills. Those include everything from the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the formal legalization of same-sex marriage.

And, on a lighter note, both Ebbin and Hope have signed on to ceremonial resolutions commending the Washington Capitals on their long-awaited Stanley Cup victory.

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