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Peter’s Take: New Era for Gun Safety in Virginia

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

As of April 20, there were 300 officially-reported Virginia statewide coronavirus deaths. By contrast, the annual average Virginia statewide gun violence death toll has been 958.

While the governmental path forward to minimize coronavirus deaths remains uncertain, Virginia has passed a significant number of new common-sense gun safety laws this year. These new laws will help substantially to lower our gun violence death toll from what it would have been without them.

Last week marked the 13th anniversary of the death of 32 students and faculty shot at Virginia Tech.

In 2020, the new Democratic majority in the legislature supported a package of eight major gun-safety laws.

Seven of these narrowly targeted new laws will become effective on July 1. Congratulations to Arlington Delegate Patrick Hope (HD 47) for his leadership on this legislation.

Already enacted

Earlier this month, Virginia enacted these five laws strengthening gun safety:

Background checks

SB 70 requires a background check for any firearm sale. This new law eliminates a prior provision that made background checks of prospective purchasers at firearms shows voluntary (the gun-show loophole).

The vast majority of the American public support laws requiring background checks on all firearms purchases. More than 90% of both gun owners and non-gun owners support this policy. Strong support for background-check laws also has been measured among NRA members, with at least 69% supporting comprehensive background checks.

Red flag provisions

SB 240 creates a legal mechanism enabling law enforcement temporarily to separate a person from their firearms when they represent a danger to themselves or others. Virginia is now among 19 other states and the District of Columbia to enact this type of law.

One handgun a month

SB 69 reinstates Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law to help curb stockpiling of firearms and trafficking. Laws limiting the number of firearms an individual can purchase per month help reduce the number of guns that end up at the scene of a crime. Virginia used to have a one-gun-a-month law, but repealed that law in 2012 at the request of the NRA.

Lost or stolen firearms

Virginia HB 9 requires gun owners to report their lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement within 48 hours or face a civil penalty.

Children’s access to firearms

Virginia HB 1083 further decreases the chances of children accessing firearms by increasing the penalty for recklessly leaving firearms in their presence.

Votes scheduled April 22

Governor Northam has proposed amendments to two additional gun safety bills. The legislature is expected to approve these amended versions on April 22:

Guns in public buildings

In May 2019, a gunman killed 12 people in a Virginia Beach municipal building. This shooting has led to a proposed new law giving Virginia localities new regulatory powers.

Virginia SB 35 allows localities (including Arlington) to regulate firearms. If enacted, a locality could prohibit the possession or carrying of firearms in locally-owned public buildings, parks, and community centers.

Individuals subject to protective orders

SB 479 prohibits individuals subject to existing protective orders from possessing firearms, and requires them to turn over their firearms within 24 hours.

Not enacted: assault weapons ban

A proposed assault weapons ban was the one major gun safety proposal that did not pass in the 2020 legislative session. Several Democratic state senators refused to support a Virginia assault weapons ban, some claiming there were problems with the proposed definition of an “assault weapon.”

Governor Northam and other Democrats have promised to re-introduce a revised bill in 2021.

Virginia law should be amended in 2021 to impose additional assault weapons restrictions. Virginia can look to examples of assault weapons bans in other states like California, Connecticut, DC, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Washington state, as described here. These states have addressed the definitional issues that troubled some Virginia legislators.

Conclusion

Elections matter. The new Democratic majority in the Virginia legislature proved that by passage of major gun-safety laws in 2020.

Not all deaths by gun violence can be prevented, but many lives will be saved by the enactment and enforcement of these new common-sense laws.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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