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Responsible gun laws in Virginia? Yes, it could happen

In December, New York police officer Peter Figoski, a 22-year veteran of the NYPD and a father of four, was shot to death while confronting a robbery suspect in Brooklyn. The Ruger 9mm pistol the suspect used to kill Figoski was sold in Virginia to a man who later moved to Queens but claimed that he “lost” the weapon while being evicted from a Virginia apartment in 2009. The man never thought to inform law enforcement that he had “lost” the weapon, and police in New York suspect that, in fact, the gun was illegally sold and trafficked to New York. Gun trafficking between Virginia and New York has caused countless tragedies over the years.

Barely two months later, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) fulfilled a campaign promise and signed the repeal of one of the few anti-trafficking measures we had in Virginia, the ban on purchasing more than one handgun a month. This law was on the books for 19 years and was originally passed because Virginia was the No. 1 source for crime guns in New York and elsewhere — remember the “iron pipeline”?

The one-handgun-a-month law had been a target of the gun lobby for almost two decades, and with the Republicans in control of the General Assembly, it was doomed. But the law’s repeal does not relieve Virginia’s policymakers of the obligation to stop the flow of illegal guns to neighborhoods near and far. The good news is there are effective policies that work, research makes clear: States that require background checks on all gun sales and require the reporting of lost or stolen guns, among other things, have a lower rate of guns trafficked to criminals.

Now, I understand there could be skeptics out there who are thinking: Don’t waste your breath; Virginia will never address this issue. Nonetheless, there are reasons for optimism.

First, while plenty of pundits thought that the gun lobby would have carte blanche in Virginia this session, there was a remarkable level of pushback from both sides of the aisle. While the media focused on the one-handgun-a-month repeal and a new law that prevents localities from fingerprinting those applying for concealed handgun permits, other gun-lobby priorities, such as allowing guns on college campuses, repealing Virginia’s background-check system and expanding the “castle doctrine” (legal immunity for those who defend themselves against intruders at home) were stopped, along with approximately two dozen lower-priority bills. Additionally, two bills that would make it harder for domestic abusers to carry firearms passed the Senate. The gun lobby has lost some clout in Richmond because a powerful grass-roots movement, led by survivors of the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, has organized into an effective opposition, helping Virginians keep their families and communities free from gun violence.

Second, recent polling has made clear that Virginians from all over the state want politicians to support policies that keep guns out of the hands of criminals. A February Richmond Times Dispatch/Christopher Newport University poll found that 66 percent of voters statewide wanted to retain the one-handgun-a-month law. Even more intriguing was a poll conducted in some of the districts thought to be the most pro-gun in the commonwealth. The polling, conducted by Lake Research Partners, examined two Senate districts (Districts 21 and 38) in southwestern Virginia. The polling made clear that efforts to educate citizens about the dangers of lax gun laws have permeated all areas of the state. I was surprised and encouraged to see the following:

●Voters in both districts want to make gun laws stronger, not less restrictive.

●More than seven in 10 voters oppose guns on campus.

●More than six in 10 voters oppose the repeal of one-gun-a-month.

●Ninety-four percent of gun owners support universal background checks.

These results forcefully show the extent to which the politics of guns is misunderstood. Citizens across the commonwealth want responsible gun laws and will support, not punish, politicians who work to reduce trafficking.

Guns are not the third rail of Virginia politics, and voters are yearning for bold leadership to stop gun trafficking. It is high time that the General Assembly and the governor got together to do something — before we recapture our title as the gun-running capital of America.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Fairfax and Arlington in the Virginia Senate.

 
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