In the aftermath of the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Oak Creek, Wis., this summer, the subject of gun control has again become a topic of conversation, with President Obama calling for a national dialogue on the topic. But the prognosis for that in Virginia is not good. Legislators in the commonwealth have no interest in taking even the smallest, most common-sense steps to regulate the purchase and handling of firearms and ammunition.
How do I know this? From hard experience. In 2009, as a member of the House of Delegates, I introduced legislation that would have made it unlawful for anyone to carry a concealed lethal-velocity pneumatic weapon (which can have the power of a .22 caliber firearm). I did this at the request of the Fairfax County police, which had found that gangs were instructing members to carry these weapons, which look and feel like real firearms, because they are completely legal. These weapons are powered by compressed air and are therefore classified as toys, not firearms. But they are not the Red Ryder BB guns of yesteryear, which could leave you with a brief sting if you were shot by one. Today’s pneumatic weapons fire larger pellets capable of causing serious injury and even death. This bill died in the House’s militia, police, and public safety subcommittee — without a recorded vote.
In 2010, when I was elected to the Virginia Senate, I changed strategies. I decided to focus on the smaller goal of simply prohibiting juveniles from possessing these weapons on school property. Who could be opposed? The House of Delegates, once again. Versions of my bill have made it through the Senate the past two years, only to be defeated in subcommittees in the House.
That’s how it is in Richmond. Any measure involving the purchase or possession of firearms is sent to this subcommittee to be defeated — unless, of course, the measure would make guns more accessible. The power of groups who oppose gun regulations is too great to overcome. Until those who believe in reasonable restrictions on gun possession and purchase begin to vote their beliefs the way the National Rifle Association and the Virginia Citizens Defense League members do, that is unlikely to change.
So what does this mean? It means that a 14-year-old high school freshman can bring to school a lethally powered pneumatic handgun that looks like a 9mm Glock with no fear of prosecution. This youngster can conceal the weapon in a shoulder holster, under a jacket or otherwise out of sight of school staff. If the gun is discovered, the student could be expelled from school, it’s true, but he or she could not be charged with a crime.
Sad to say, sensible gun laws are not possible at this time in Virginia. Our legislature refuses to mandate background checks for many gun purchases completed at commercial gun shows. We have repealed our state’s “one gun a month” purchase restriction. And we cannot even take the sensible precaution of prohibiting the possession or concealment of lethally powered handguns by juveniles in our schools.
I believe in the Second Amendment, and I do not want to take guns from our citizens. I do, however, want to make our schools safer and protect our children through reasonable regulation. Unfortunately, even that appears to be beyond reach in 2012.
The writer, a Democrat, is a member of the Virginia Senate.