RICHMOND, JAN. 30 -- A House committee intervened today in a dispute over guns in public housing projects, approving a bill that would guarantee tenants the right to keep firearms in their apartments.
The proposal would overturn a decision last year by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. In an effort to reduce rising crime in the projects, the authority changed its leases to ban possession of guns by tenants, an action that some renters complained violated their constitutional rights.
Today's 16 to 2 vote by the House General Laws Committee, if followed by the full legislature, would apply to public housing projects across the state.
A member of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority suggested this week that city officials there consider a policy similar to Richmond's, but any action has been postponed, pending action by the legislature.
Fairfax County housing officials said they are not considering any similar measures. Prince William, Loudoun and Arlington counties do not have public housing.
To give the Richmond housing officials and tenants a chance to work out an agreement, the legislation would expire in one year and allow the housing authority to ban weapons in common areas of the developments. The committee rejected an amendment that would have prohibited any landlord from putting a gun ban in a lease.
After last spring's decision, the Richmond Tenants Organization, representing some of the city's 14,000 public housing residents, sued the authority, alleging that the action would make second-class citizens of the tenants.
A spokesman for the housing authority said Chicago has adopted a similar gun ban. It has not been challenged in the courts.
So far, the Richmond housing authority has prevailed in the courts, but the tenants have appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The pending legislation could make the lawsuit moot, according to a spokesman for the housing authority.
At today's crowded hearing, the controversy attracted strange bedfellows. The legislation that would overturn the gun ban was introduced by Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst), one of the legislature's staunchest conservatives, and was supported by the NACCP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association. Opponents included the Richmond City Council and the association that represents the 30 public housing authorities in the state.
Tenants in the Richmond housing projects are divided. Several dozen who favor the gun ban attended the hearing wearing the number 114, which represents the number of homicides last year in Richmond. About an equal number appeared in favor of the legislation.
Richmond, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the country, has been plagued by drug-related shootings in its 4,500 public housing units. Thirty-five of the 114 homicides and about one-third of the 600 shootings in the city last year occurred in or adjacent to public housing complexes.
Alexandria police said there were no homicides involving firearms reported in the city's 756 public housing units last year.
Ron Fitzsimmons, the Alexandria authority member who is considering asking for a gun ban, said, "I view this as preventive medicine . . . . I'm a strong advocate of gun control."
Staff writer Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.