Democrats said they were fulfilling a campaign pledge to tighten gun control in the commonwealth, after winning control of both chambers of the General Assembly as well as the governor’s mansion for the first time in 26 years.
“I think what we saw today is this is a new day in Virginia,” said Del. Jeffrey M. Bourne (D-Richmond), chairman of the firearms subcommittee of the House Public Safety Committee. “We’re going to go beyond thoughts and prayers. We’re going to give voters laws that will make Virginia safer.”
Jason Nixon, whose wife, Kate, was one of 12 people killed by a gunman in a Virginia Beach municipal building May 31, emotionally urged the committee to support the bill allowing lawsuits by victims shot in places that are supposed to be gun free.
Nixon said his wife had feared for her safety the day before the shooting — not because of the eventual gunman, but because another employee had been fired. But she did not take a gun to work because firearms were not allowed.
“She obeyed the law, and she’s dead now,” Nixon said.
Committee members seemed moved by his testimony, as did Lori Haas, a veteran gun-control activist whose daughter survived being shot during the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. But Haas said she and others have been urging the General Assembly for 12 years to impose restrictions on guns and are not going to change their position at this point.
The committee members, who worried that such a change to sovereign immunity would need further review, voted against the measure.
Republicans denounced Tuesday’s votes, particularly the rejection of a bill that would have imposed additional penalties on anyone using a gun while committing or attempting to commit serious crimes.
Critics of that bill said the penalties were not necessary because sentences are imposed based on the initial crime; they said mandatory sentences, which have had a more severe impact on communities of color, do not deter crime.
“It’s further evidence that for all the talk of stopping gun violence, their true agenda seems to be stopping [legal gun owners],” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) told reporters in his office. “They are desperate to make life easier for criminals in this legislative session, and make life a lot harder for law-abiding gun owners.”
The vitriol spilled onto the House floor hours later, when Del. Chris L. Hurst (D-Montgomery) said the massive rally outside the Virginia Capitol on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, traditionally a day of citizen lobbying in Richmond, did not represent the will of most Virginians.
Law enforcement reports of threats and possible violence at the demonstration kept gun-control groups and other advocates away. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) declared a state of emergency and temporarily banned guns from Capitol Square. About 6,000 protesters chose to go through security checkpoints and enter the gun-free area. But an even greater crowd remained in the streets outside Capitol Square, including many individuals wearing guns, helmets and body armor.
“It is not the thousands of armed and masked men outside the Capitol we should be paying attention to,” said Hurst, who ran for office in 2017 after his girlfriend, a news reporter, was shot on live television. “We had elections in November that represented the true will of the people . . . There is a silent majority that did not show up on the Capitol grounds yesterday because bullies made our sacred space temporarily unsafe.”
The General Assembly is poised to enact sweeping gun-control legislation this year, requiring background checks on all firearms purchases, allowing law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from individuals deemed a risk to themselves or others, letting localities ban weapons from certain events and government buildings, and capping handgun purchases to one per month.Other gun restrictions have been proposed, but they have not advanced.
In addition, a House-Senate rules committee permanently banned guns from the state Capitol and an adjacent office building — a decision that is not subject to review by the rest of the legislature.