By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008
RICHMOND, Jan. 23 -- A bill that would have restricted certain gun sales in Virginia and that had received passionate support from survivors of the Virginia Tech massacre was defeated by a Senate committee Wednesday, ending the major gun control effort of this year's General Assembly session.
The legislation had failed repeatedly over the years but had taken on a greater urgency this year because of the April 16 shootings. Supporters had said this year was their best chance of winning approval because of the Virginia Tech tragedy, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) had made it a priority.
But Republicans and rural Democrats on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee teamed up to reject the bill, which would have required background checks for buyers at gun shows. Sens. Richard L. Saslaw, Janet D. Howell and Linda T. "Toddy" Puller, Fairfax County Democrats, voted in favor of the bill, and Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II, a Fairfax Republican, voted against it.
Under current law, only people who buy guns from licensed dealers must be checked through the federal database that identifies convicted felons and others deemed a danger to the community. Between 22 percent and 35 percent of gun show vendors do not have licenses, Virginia State Police say.
For Kaine, the vote was a setback especially because the Senate is controlled by his party. When the House defeated the bill last week, Kaine asserted that the effort was not over. But neither he nor others could overcome the power of the state's gun lobby and Virginia's historic support of gun rights.
A spokesman for Kaine said the governor was disappointed by Wednesday's vote.
"He has said many times that either you believe a felon should be able to buy a gun or you don't," spokesman Gordon Hickey said. "This vote indicates that some believe a felon should be able to buy a gun at a gun show."
Gun rights groups had opposed the bill, saying that Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who shot and killed 32 people and then himself, did not buy the two semiautomatic weapons he used in the shootings at a gun show. Gun control advocates, however, said it would close a loophole in state law that could allow convicted felons and other dangerous individuals to buy guns and commit similar crimes.
"It's a complete and utter outrage," said Abigail Spangler, founder of the Alexandria-based http://ProtestEasyGuns.com, which had lobbied for the bill. "I'm offended on behalf of all Virginians in this year of our tragedy, when we lost our fellow Virginians in the largest mass shooting in Virginia history."
Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who generally opposes gun restrictions, had proposed a compromise, which he said was inspired by emotional testimony from Virginia Tech families.
"I've never voted for legislation like this before, but I think it's important that in the end, we respond in some fashion to the tragedy at Virginia Tech," Deeds said.
Under the compromise, anyone with a permit to carry a concealed weapon would have been exempted from a background check, as would those who were buying antique guns. In addition, the requirement would not apply to gun sales that take place in parking lots outside the leased area of the gun show.
But Deed's proposal did not persuade the 15-member committee's seven Republicans to change their minds. Nor did it sway two rural Democrats, including John S. Edwards of Roanoke, whose district includes Virginia Tech. The panel voted to send the issue to the Virginia Crime Commission, an advisory board that would craft a recommendation for a future legislative session.
"I think the Crime Commission can look at the details of this and try to work out some of the complexities," Edwards said.
The vote came as a relief to gun rights advocates, who had urged lawmakers to set aside their emotions over the Virginia Tech tragedy and reject the bill on its merits. They argued that it would have hurt business at gun shows and put too much responsibility on the backs of unlicensed sellers, who often are private citizens who sell guns occasionally.
Moreover, they said, it would have hindered their constitutional right to bear arms.
"If I own a piece of property, I am free to sell it. This would have gotten in the way of that," said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond) was visibly upset that the bill was rejected this year as it had been several times before. He voted against sending it to the Crime Commission, saying it was a "burying ground" for the legislation.
But the decision to continue to study the issue heartened Andrew Goddard, whose son, Colin Goddard, was shot four times by Cho but survived.
"I know in my heart we are on the side of right here, and we will overcome eventually," said Goddard of Henrico County. "I feel confident that the people of Virginia have the will to do this one day."