A Virginia House committee recently rejected proposals by Northern Virginia lawmakers to ban guns from the state Capitol and the chambers of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. The Oct. 16 vote was at the height of the sniper attacks. In this column, Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax) explains the reasoning behind his proposal to bar handguns from the county board chambers and another bill barring sex offenders or stalkers from owning a gun for five years after their conviction. Philip A. Van Cleave, president of the gun rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League Inc., defends his opposition to Scott's bills.
Virginia's laws on dangerous weapons reveal the paradoxes in the General Assembly's attitudes about crime and punishment.
On the one hand, Virginia lawmakers have been "tough on crime." They favored eliminating parole, a massive prison-building program, making it easier for youth to be tried as adults and setting mandatory minimum sentences for selling small amounts of marijuana.
On the other hand, even convicted offenders are allowed to possess firearms in public places. Individuals convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault can walk into a recreation center with a shotgun. A person convicted of assault of a family member could stroll into the state Capitol with a dangerous weapon.
According to state law, the meeting places of city councils and boards of supervisors can be placed off-limits to rowdy constituents but not to a calm gun-toting stranger.
Ironically, a person under a restraining order for domestic abuse cannot possess a gun, but a person convicted of stalking can do so, even though that person has been found guilty by a court of two offenses of stalking before a first conviction.
The recent meeting of the House of Delegates' Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee affirmed these paradoxes when it met to consider bills carried over from the previous session of the General Assembly.
Del. James F. Almand (D-Arlington) proposed to ban firearms in public buildings, including the Capitol. Seeing the bill headed for certain defeat, he narrowed the scope of the bill to apply only to the Capitol. My bills to allow Fairfax County to ban guns in the county Board of Supervisors' meeting chambers and to prevent first-offense stalkers and sexual abusers from owning guns for five years after their convictions were defeated overwhelmingly.
Nevertheless, defeat of Del. Almand's bill and my bills has not kept state police from checking all visitors for dangerous weapons. What will they do when they find one? Congratulate the owner? Send notes to members of the General Assembly so they can bring recognition to the person on the floor of the House and/or Senate?
There is little doubt that the time has come to change Virginia's slogan from "Virginia Is for Lovers" to "Virginia Is for Gun Lovers."
-- Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax)
In order to protect the freedom that Virginia citizens enjoy, the Virginia Citizens Defense League (www.vcdl.org) is constantly on the watch for gun legislation that punishes or restricts law-abiding gun owners.
Two such pieces of gun-control legislation were introduced by Del. Scott earlier this year and were resoundingly killed by a General Assembly committee a few weeks ago.
Thomas Jefferson summed up gun control neatly: "Laws that forbid the carrying of arms disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man."
The first piece of legislation, HB 1017, originally banned gun owners from carrying their guns into any public building in Fairfax. In a desperate attempt to get it out of committee, the bill was narrowed to only ban guns in the chambers where the Fairfax Board of Supervisors hold their meetings.
Speaking against the bill, I pointed out that no matter how narrow, this legislation would not have affected a determined criminal but would have instead disarmed honest citizens as they went to and from the meetings, usually at night. The police are not going to escort you to your car to make sure you get there safely. In fact, courts have ruled that the police have no legal mandate to protect any individual, just society as a whole. Your personal security is really up to you. Fair enough, as long as you are not denied the proper tools.
A law-abiding citizen with a gun is an asset, not a liability. Virginia's 110,000 concealed-handgun permit holders are the most law-abiding citizens in the commonwealth. Thanks to these permit holders, criminals lurking in parking lots or side streets do not know which citizens have a gun and are therefore more hesitant to attack anyone. Criminals prefer the easy pickings in gun-free D.C.
And authorities can easily abuse gun-possession laws. Three years ago, a similar bill was introduced on behalf of Fairfax. A member of the Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee noted that the proposed legislation would have made a criminal out of a repairman who legally had a gun in his van the second he pulled onto county property. The Fairfax representative's reply stunned the subcommittee: "Our police would know not to charge someone like that."
Del. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) noted during the hearing on HB 1017 that the General Assembly building was safer with armed citizens in it. The vast majority of the committee agreed by voting down the bill.
It restored my faith in government -- well, not in the Fairfax government.
The other bill, HB 1016, would have taken away the right of a citizen to possess a gun for five years if convicted on any of a variety of misdemeanors. Speaking against this bill, I said that unlike felonies, misdemeanors are for minor crimes and are not supposed to take away a person's civil rights. HB 1016 would have set a dangerous precedent of making felonies out of misdemeanors, with serious repercussions for all of our rights down the road.
In the end HB 1016 and 1017 died because, like other gun-control measures, violent criminals, and not the good people of Virginia, would have benefited from their passage.
-- Philip A. Van Cleave
PHILIP A. VAN CLEAVE