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Virginia lawmakers aim to loosen firearm restrictions

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; B01

RICHMOND, FEB. 14 -- A little more than a year ago, Virginia gun owners joined millions of Americans who began stockpiling weapons for fear that Barack Obama would win the White House and push for new gun controls.

Now that the former Illinois senator is president, the prophesied gun control measures have not come to pass, and Virginia's gun advocates are feeling almost giddy about their chances to loosen restrictions on buying and carrying firearms.

With a new Republican governor, attorney general and Republican-led House of Delegates, pro-gun legislators in Virginia are pushing a raft of bills, including some that would have had little chance in previous years.

Among them is a bid to fend off federal regulation of firearms and ammunition made and sold only in Virginia and a proposal to repeal the 17-year-old ban on buying more than one handgun a month, a signature achievement of former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D).

The repeal sailed through the House on Monday, despite opposition from law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church, and delegates also passed the bill on federal regulation. Both measures face an uphill climb in the Senate.

"You shouldn't have your constitutional rights rationed. Do we ration the First Amendment? Why not one church service a month?" said Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), who is sponsoring the repeal of the one-gun-a-month law.

Other bills are designed to swell the ranks of Virginia's approximately 214,300 concealed-weapons carriers and open more doors to them. On Friday, the House approved a bill, HB505, that would allow people to carry concealed weapons in establishments that serve alcohol, as long as they refrain from drinking. On Tuesday, the Senate is expected to take up a similar bill, SB334, sponsored by Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta).

In previous years, the guns-in-bars bill cleared both chambers but was vetoed by then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has expressed support for the measure.

Similar efforts to loosen gun restrictions are underway in Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Among a dozen pro-gun bills under consideration in Arizona this year is a measure to allow residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit, effectively abolishing existing training and certification requirements. Wyoming's House overwhelmingly passed a similar bill last week.

'A burden on society'

The trend toward loosening restrictions on guns worries people such as Rao Ivatury, a surgeon and head of the trauma unit at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. Of the more than 800 people who arrive at the trauma center each year because of violence, about two-thirds have been shot.

Ivatury estimates that caring for a gunshot victim costs "in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and some into the millions." Even a 10-day stay for a fairly minor wound can cost at least $25,000 he said.

"So there is a burden on society," Ivatury said.

The pro-gun trend has cheered the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates, such as Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

"America has come around to the fact that you've got to blame the criminals for criminal acts and stop punishing everybody else every time something happens," Van Cleave said.

Except for 2008, the year after the Virginia Tech massacre, Virginia lawmakers have introduced more weapons bills this year -- 60 -- than in the past 15 years, and two-thirds of this year's bills dealing with handguns or other firearms have been endorsed by the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

In a nod to the growing 10th Amendment movement urging states to resist federal encroachment, Republican Dels. Charles W. Carrico Jr. (Grayson) and C.L. "Clay" Athey Jr. (Warren) have submitted bills that would protect Virginia-made ammunition and firearms sold only in the commonwealth from federal legislation. That bill, HB69, also won preliminary approval.

Another bill, HB854, written by Del. James W. Morefield (R-Tazewell) and given preliminary approval Monday, would enshrine the "castle doctrine," a legal principle that ensures that a gun owner who injures or kills an intruder in his home does not face criminal prosecution or civil lawsuits.

"It's pretty staggering, the number of bills put forward, especially the bills for carrying concealed weapons and taking them to new and exciting places," said Chad Ramsey, director of federal legislation at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Ramsey said that several concealed weapons holders have been charged in mass killings, including Christopher Speight, who is charged with murder in the killings of eight people in Appomattox last month, and Maj. Nidal Hasan, who has been charged in the mass shooting at Fort Hood in November.

Political climate

Highest on the gun advocates' wish list is Lingamfelter's bill to repeal what is perhaps Virginia's best-known gun control law. Lingamfelter says the law that bans the purchase of more than one handgun every 30 days is obsolete because the General Assembly has carved out so many exceptions, including a provision that exempts current concealed weapons holders. He says that advances in instant electronic background checks have also made it unnecessary.

Some gun control advocates said they think the House committee was emboldened to push the measure after the Democrat-controlled Senate surrendered on a bill that would have closed the so-called gun show loophole. That bill, SB595, sponsored by Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), would have required every buyer at a gun show to undergo a background check. Currently, only federally licensed dealers must conduct the checks. Similar measures died in House committees.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said it did not seem worthwhile to pass the bill when its fate in the House was clear.

"We've beaten our heads against the wall," Saslaw said. "You know, you begin to look like Don Quixote."

Saslaw also said that avoiding the issue spares some vulnerable members from a politically risky vote. But he expressed hope that the Senate would kill the repeal of the gun-a-month law, even if it moves through the House.

"If you had a bill over there that required every home to come with a surface-to-air missile, it'd pass," he said.

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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