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Landmark gun curb faces test in Virginia Senate

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010; B01

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.

Supporters and opponents agree that the cap reduced the number of Virginia firearms recovered and traced by law enforcement officials in cities along the East Coast.

Special Agent Michael Campbell of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives added, "Anecdotally, we've heard people we've arrested for firearms trafficking say that it was more difficult to find people to do straw purchases because they had to find more people."

Beyond anecdotes, however, it's not clear that the law reduced crime or gun-related violence, largely because there's no way to determine whether criminals simply found another way to buy guns. Tracing data, collected by ATF, offer only a limited view of the flow of firearms.

"I would say that there's suggestive evidence that the Virginia gun-a-month law did some good, but it's not determinative evidence," said Jens Ludwig, a professor at the University of Chicago.

A study by Gary Kleck, a professor at Florida State University, was far more skeptical. Writing in the UCLA law review last year, Kleck argued that high numbers of guns traced to states, including Virginia, have more to do with rates of gun ownership and theft than trafficking. He also wrote that trafficking accounts for an extremely small number of guns obtained by criminals and that gun-a-month laws have had no provable effect on homicide rates or violent crime.

Kleck also said the oft-reported story of people loading up trunks of Glocks in Southern gun shops and selling them on the streets of major cities is not borne out by law enforcement findings. He cites data showing that guns on the street sell for substantially less than retail price -- a point that undercuts the rationale for traffickers to buy from licensed dealers.

"There is at present no reliable evidence to affirmatively support the view that such traffickers are common enough to be important in supplying firearms to criminals," Kleck writes.

Ludwig said making it harder to traffic guns would outweigh the inconveniences faced by gun buyers. "There's some uncertainty of the benefits of these laws, but it strikes me that the cost of these laws is very low in terms of the public good," he said.

Gun owners argue that their Second Amendment rights should not be infringed by an arbitrary limit whose efficacy is unclear. They argue that a woman who wanted to buy handguns for her home, business and purse, for instance, would have to wait three months to fully arm herself. They also said the law hampers collectors, despite an exemption for them.

"What if you're at a gun show and there's that one gun you really wanted? It might be at a great price, it might be hard to find, but you just bought a gun two weeks earlier," said VCDL president Philip Van Cleave.

When asked to name a specific person who had inconveniences or accidental run-ins with the law, neither the state NRA chapter nor the VCDL could find anyone.

'Kapow!'

At the time Wilder's bill passed, Virginia had earned the distinction as the No. 1 source in the "Iron Pipeline" supplying illicit guns to East Coast cities.

"We were the gun-running state," Wilder said. "Richmond was one of the top five murder cities. Businesses were skittish about locating here."

And then -- "Kapow!" -- enter the Caped Crusader.

In a 64-page special edition called "Batman: Seduction of the Gun," the superhero was depicted battling traffickers running guns and drugs between Gotham City and Virginia Beach.

Virginia's lawmakers each received a free copy of the comic book, and Batman's entry intensified news media attention, helping Wilder assemble a bipartisan coalition. His allies included Richard Cullen, a Republican who was then U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, fighting a tide of drug-related killings.

"I thought it was giving Virginia a black eye," said Cullen, who served on McDonnell's transition team. Cullen took the unusual step of asking the administration of President George H.W. Bush for permission to campaign for the law. And he enlisted the help of Fortune 500 executives.

Gun rights supporters fought back. Dennis Fusaro, a founder of the VCDL, recalls hundreds of people jamming a Fairfax hearing. "We packed the place," said Fusaro, 49, of Front Royal.

But Wilder, whose initiative became the centerpiece of his final State of the Commonwealth speech, carried the day. At an unusually elaborate signing ceremony, he scoffed at those who said the NRA was invincible.

The VCDL was formed by some of the gun rights supporters who had packed the town halls. "Everybody said, 'We're not going to wait for the NRA to get our rights back, we're going to do it ourselves,' " Fusaro said.

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