Landmark gun curb faces test in Virginia Senate

"Criminals who are inclined to break the law don't obey this one," said Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R), who sponsored the new measure. (Bob Brown/associated Press)
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By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

RICHMOND -- The latest and most significant effort to repeal Virginia's gun laws faces a critical vote on Thursday, when senators will consider a measure that would undo the state's landmark one-gun-a-month law.

Democrats, who control the Senate, will try to kill the legislation through a newly formed subcommittee that they stacked with anti-gun lawmakers. Republicans and other gun rights advocates have protested, saying that rules prohibit subcommittees from killing bills; they are demanding a vote by the full Senate Courts of Justice Committee. Republicans are outnumbered there as well, but they hope that enough pro-gun Democrats will join them to vote the measure out of committee.

Leaders of both parties are unsure which way a vote would go on the Senate floor. The Republican-controlled House has voted to repeal the law, and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has said he supports doing away with it. McDonnell voted for the law as a delegate nearly two decades ago but has said recently that advances in background checks make it unnecessary.

Regardless of whether the bill dies this year, gun rights advocates believe the momentum is on their side after the first sustained attack on a law whose passage became a milestone but whose legacy -- and efficacy -- is now in question.

"As a citizen, I'm concerned," said former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D), who counts the bill's passage in 1993 as one of his most notable achievements.

Except for 2008, a year after the Virginia Tech massacre, the General Assembly has taken up more gun-related bills than at any time in the past 15 years. Unlike 2008, however, when several bills attempted to tighten gun regulations, two-thirds of the bills dealing with handguns or other firearms this year had the backing of gun rights groups. The House alone passed 21 pro-gun bills -- an accomplishment that opponents referred to sarcastically as a 21-gun salute.

In a state where gun ownership is seen as a hallowed right, Virginia's gun-a-month law was seen as a national turning point. Wilder said he pushed for the law because many guns used in crimes had been traced to Virginia, and the Commonwealth had become an embarrassment. The state's reputation was so widely known that D.C. Comics spotlighted Virginia's gun running in a special-edition "Batman" comic book. Soon after, Republicans and Democrats united to pass the legislation.

The law lifted hopes for similar measures in Congress and delivered a stinging defeat to the National Rifle Association, which is based in Fairfax County.

But that defeat also gave rise to a powerful grass-roots movement of Virginia gun owners that is helping to loosen regulations on guns. The Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), whose members flood the state Capitol every year, often with guns on their hips, pushed one of the largest slates of gun-friendly bills in memory this session, including a measure passed by the General Assembly that would allow people with concealed-weapons permits to go into bars armed.

Citing advances in background checks, Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), who sponsored the gun-a-month repeal, argues that the law is obsolete. Many gun buyers, including more than 214,000 Virginians with concealed-weapons permits, are already exempt, he said.

"In reality, one gun a month, as it is euphemistically referred to, does not stop crime," Lingamfelter said. "Criminals who are inclined to break the law don't obey this one."

Does it work?

At the heart of the renewed debate is whether the gun-a-month law works.

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