It was, as Arlington Del Elise Heinz was the first to admit, "a rather modest effort" aimed at stopping criminals from buying handguns in Virginia by requiring police checks of those wanting the guns.
Members of the House Committee on Militia and Police say they saw Heinz's House Bill 1764 as the first step down the road to "gun control," one of the most hated and politically volatile concepts in Virginia. It took just 20 minutes last week for the committee to vote 9 to 3 to consign the bill to the legislative graveyard that has been the final resting place of every attempt to tighten the state's gun laws for the last 16 years.
The result is that Virginia's gun laws -- considered among the nation's loosest -- have undermined more strict statutes in such jurisdictions as New York and the District of Columbia, according to law enforcement officials. Says Heinz: "Virginia has become notorious as a handgun bazaar for criminals" who buy weapons in Virginia, then import them illegally to the northeast.
Of the nine lawmakers who killed her House Bill 1764, some say they did so because of doubts about the measure's effectiveness, while others cite philosophical objections to a bill even they concede was mild. The bill's supporters say 1764's death is also a tribute to the power of the state's grassroots gun lobby, whose members maintain a constant vigil against even the smallest changes in state gun laws and whose votes can make or break political candidates.
"It's one of those issues that people just don't want to be caught on," says former Norfolk Del. Joseph Leafe, who led an unsuccessful effort for a similar bill three years ago. "Why, if it's not your issue, should you put your neck out for it when you know there'll be a group of people who will shoot at you?"
Supporters of Heinz's bill had hoped to have it sent to the House General Laws Committee, where most gun measures had been directed in past years and where legislators from urban areas might have given the bill a chance. Instead, House Speaker A. L. Philpott, a Southside Virginia lawyer and gun control foe, sent the bill to the obscure Militia and Police Committee, dominated by rural lawmakers who view any gun bill with alarm.
"I've worked with the people on this committee over the years," says Wayne McLaughlin, the burly, retired engineer from Staunton who is the National Rifle Association's sole Virginia lobbyist. "Many of them are sportsmen and a lot of them own guns themselves."
The jovial 72-year-old McLaughlin once pulled a two-foot-long antique revolver out of his coat to show to subcommittee how easy it is to conceal any size gun and how futile it is for the state to attempt to regulate such matters. This year, he left his guns home, confident that committee members would need little promptimg on House Bill 1764.
Supporters argued that the bill, which would have allowed police up to three days to check out prosective handgun buyeres and an additional seven days on suspicious cases, would not restrict purchases by honest citizens. One speaker, Unitarian minister David McPherson of Richmond, said the bill would not stop people from buying handguns any more than waiting periods for blood tests stop people from getting married.
A majority of the committee disargeed. "It's still a gun control bill," said Prince William County Del. Floyd Bagely. "Hell, if I want to buy a .45 on Saturday to shoot as a tournament on Sunday, this bill says I couldn't to it."
Others said they saw the bill as a bad precedent. "I've seen too many camels get their nose in the tent around here," says Del. Calvin Fowler (D-Danville), who grew up on a Southside farm where guns were a way of life. "Pass this bill and they'll be back next year looking for more, until one day we won't have any way of defeinding ourselves."
All nine of the committee's no-votes deny that fear of offending gun enthusiasts played a role in their decisions, but as Bagley noted, "a lot of pro-gun control U.S. senators like Joseph Tydings have been defeated. Once they [the lobby groups] get going on you, you can't explain because they don't listen."
The core of the gun lobby's political power come from the National Rifle Association's 42,000 Virginia members. McLaughlin likes to remind lawmakers that, in addition to his role as NRA lobbyist, he also was chairman of Sportsmen for (Gov. John N.) Dalton three years ago, and says his group was responsible for 50,000 of the governor's votes.
Dalton's opponent in that race, former Lt. Gov. Henry Howell, found himself the target of a strong, NRA-backed campaign that included organizational meetings, mailings and a mult-media advertising blitz after Howell was perceived to favor gun control, a position he denied.
Fairfax Del. James Dillard, one of the three Militia and Police Committee members who voted for House Bill 1764, partly attributes his defeat in a 1977 Republican primary to local gun groups who branded him -- falsely, he says -- a gun control propenent. Dillard, who returned to the House of Delegates last year, says he fully expects his vote on the bill to become an issue in his reelection campaign this fall.
Others, like Dillard's fellow Fairfax Del. Gladys Keating, a Democrat, say they opposed the Heinz bill because they thought it would have little impact on the illegal flow of handguns from Virginia.
The volume of that flow is clear from statistics compiled by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire-arms. Since May 1978, the bureau's Richmond office has traced 1,590 fire-arms -- most of them handguns -- that had been bought in Virginia and shipped out of the state, mostly to northern cities. The bureau's New York office, which seizes 7,000 illegal handguns each year, ranks Virginia No. 2 behind Florida as the prime source of those weapons.
In the District of Columbia, despite strict controls, handguns were used in nearly 4,000 crimes in 1979 and the 1980 figures are likely to be even higher. Local bureau officials say they get at least three good investigative leads each week on Virginia-bought guns used in D.C. crimes and could pursue hundreds more each year if they had the manpower.
"It's doesn't help the District of Columbia to have a tough gun law when one of the weakest in the country is right across the river," says Charles Orasin, executive director of the National Council to Control Handguns.
To buy a handgun in most parts of Virginia, all a customer needs to do is show a state driver's license anf fill out a federal form denying he is a minor, convicted felon, drug user or lunatic. Then, without waiting for anyone to check the veracity of his written statement, he can walk away with as many guns as he chooses. Maryland, by contrast, requires a seven-day waiting period for a police check, while the District prohibits the purchase of new handguns altogether. Handguns are permitted in the District of Columbia only if they were purchased before the city's gun law become effective and are registered with police.
Of Virginia's 130 jurisdictions, 22 impose some restrictions on handgun purchases. Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax all require waiting periods for gun purchases. As John Rowley, recently retired agent in charge of the bureau's Washington office, points out, the laxness of laws in other localities undermines these local laws just as it does restrictions in other states, and creates supermarket-style gun shops like Clark Brothers, located near Warrenton on the fringe of the metropolitan area.
"If you don't like to wait and have your name checked against the [police] computer, you can drive downstate and buy firearms over the counter as fast as you can buy apples," says Rowley.
With House Bill 1764 dead, there remains two other gun measures before the Virginia legislature that sponsor Heinz concedes "really aren't substantive." One would require local judges to ask for a police check before issuing a permit to carry a concealed weapon -- already common practice. The other would make it a felony for anyone convicted of a violent crime to possess a handgun, which already is federal law. Both were approved by the House on second reading last night but they still face an uncertain future.
"The problem is that anything that can be painted as gun control has no chance," says one veteran of previous efforts. "It's like the Equal Rights Amendment -- it'll never see the light of day here."