Machete Bill Is Pushed to Help Fight Gangs

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Senate committee has passed a bill that would make it illegal to threateningly brandish a machete, the weapon popular with gangs in Northern Virginia.

The bill targets gangs including Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and South Side Locos, which have used machetes to intimidate and attack rivals. Police have said the large, curved blades are used because they can cause permanent, scarring injuries and because gang members with roots in Central America remember machetes as inexpensive farm tools in their homelands.

"There's a cultural significance to the machete in terms of its ability to inspire fear and terror," said Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), the bill's sponsor. "That's why they're used that way."

In May 2004, a member of the South Side Locos gang lost four fingers when he was attacked by rival gang members with a machete in Fairfax County. Eight months later, a 25-year-old man lost three fingers when he was assaulted by machete-wielding MS-13 members outside a Merrifield movie theater.

Since 2004, it has been illegal to carry a concealed machete. Puller's bill, SB 183, would also make it a crime to point, hold or brandish a machete in a way that would "reasonably induce fear" in someone.

During a committee hearing on the bill, senators were shown a picture of the mutilated hand of a man who had tried to defend himself against a machete-wielding assailant.

Puller's bill was combined with similar legislation sponsored by Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax) and passed unanimously in the Senate's Courts of Justice Committee. It will now be heard by the Finance Committee, a routine step for legislation that might result in the state's paying to incarcerate more people. It would then face a vote of the full Senate before going to the House of Delegates. Several Northern Virginia delegates have submitted similar legislation, though none has been heard.

Puller said the bill would give law enforcement more options to fight gangs. A conviction for threatening others with a machete would be punishable by up to a year in jail. "Hopefully," she said, "this will be a victory against gang violence."

Tougher Law Sought on Dog Owners

After Dorothy Sullivan, 82, was killed in March by three pit bulls as she walked her Shih Tzu along a neighborhood street in Spotsylvania County, the pit bulls' owner was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Deanna Large, who authorities said had allowed the pit bulls to run free despite suspicions that they had attacked other animals, was convicted last month. But Spotsylvania Commonwealth's Attorney William Neely had acknowledged there was no precedent to bringing a manslaughter charge against a dog owner for a pet's actions.

"The laws in Virginia just didn't really address that kind of lack of ownership and responsibility," said Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania).

So Houck convened a task force, including law enforcement groups and representatives of the Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and Breeders and the American Dog Owners Association, to look at Virginia's dog laws. The bill the group produced, SB 200, is supported by the Senate's Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee and will soon be considered by the full chamber before it is heard by the House of Delegates.

The bill says a dog owner could be charged if the pet injured or killed a person or another animal. If the dog had previously been determined by a court to be "dangerous," penalties for owners would be more severe, including substantial jail time in the case of owners whose dogs caused serious injuries or deaths. Those who own dangerous dogs would be required to register their pets with the state and carry more insurance.

Sullivan's son-in-law and Neely spoke at the hearing in support of the bill.

"The family has said they didn't want their mother's death to be in vain," Houck said. "We are making dog owners more responsible in Virginia."

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