Since 1947, people buying guns in Alexandria have had to wait 72 hours while police check their backgrounds for criminal records or evidence of mental instability. The city's ordinance, identical to laws in effect in Arlington and Fairfax counties, has never been challenged, or even criticized.
Now, troubled by a series of opinions from the state attorney general casting doubt on the legal authority of Virginia cities to pass any sort of gun laws, Alexandria wants to get state permission to do what it has been doing for 35 years.
City officials say their request -- expected to go before the legislature next month -- is simple: "A clean up deal," in the words of Del. Marion Van Landingham (D-Alexandria). But as Van Landingham knows, getting any gun legislation through the General Assembly is never simple. And already, the predictions in Richmond are that Alexandria's chances of getting state approval for its 72-hour waiting period are slim.
"I doubt very seriously that legislation of that type could come out of committee," said Del. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke County). "I would say there is a pretty good chance that it will get voted down."
Behind those predictions lies the power of Virginia's gun lobby, which for years has successfully blocked legislation that even hints at gun control.
"Our basic position on waiting periods in general is that we oppose them," said David Adkins, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association.
Last year, in fact, Van Landingham, then a freshman delegate, tried to introduce legislation that would have given all cities in Virginia the specific authority to require background checks on people who buy handguns. That power has been granted since 1944 to counties with high-density populations, including Arlington and Fairfax.
Van Landingham's bill was promptly directed to the Committee on Militia and Police, viewed as a graveyard for gun legislation. "I think we killed that without a dissenting vote," recalled Del. Victor Thomas (D-Roanoke). "No one was in favor of it."
This year, Van Landingham has proposed that Alexandria seek authority for its gun ordinance by putting specific language in the city's charter bill. That bill, referred to the Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns, is an package bill put in each year to revise and amend various powers granted the city by the state.
The Alexandria City Council will make final decisions on its charter bill at a meeting Tuesday. But the gun ordinance was already tentatively approved last week in a meeting with the city's legislative delegation.
"This is a very reasonable proposal; it is not gun control," said Van Landingham. "We are asking nothing for Alexandria that has not existed since 1944 for Arlington, Fairfax and other counties. My feeling is if everybody is so scared about giving this to cities in general, let's just do it for Alexandria."
Alexandria's problem with its gun ordinance is another example of the crazy-quilt pattern of local laws in Virginia. Under the so-called Dillon Rule, local governments in Virginia are empowered to do only what the state legislature specifically allows them to do -- hence the heavy agenda of local bills that hit the General Assembly each year.
Under that rule, the state attorney general has concluded that many gun laws available to Virginia counties are not available to its cities. Alexandria and other cities argue that gun ordinances are legal under a city's power to provide for its citizens' welfare. Neither theory has been tested in court.
"We are asking for the charter change because we believe it will enhance our regulations," said Barbara Beach, assistant city attorney. Last year, Alexandria ran 1,715 background checks on gun purchasers; so far this year, the number is 1,213.
But the danger of seeking gun legislation and being turned down is not lost on city officials. Said Beach: "I think we have some sense of what our delegates are up against in the General Assembly on this issue."