RICHMOND — Republicans in Virginia’s legislature are on track to kill almost all gun control legislation touted by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) as a priority, including a “red flag” bill aimed at preventing suicide that has been endorsed by the Trump administration and passed by Maryland and 14 other states.
The Republican purge of gun bills is an annual event but comes during a year when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election and moderate suburban voters who tend to favor gun control have been tilting toward Democrats.
Republicans hold a two-vote majority in both the state Senate and House of Delegates, and while some vulnerable GOP lawmakers are moving left on issues such as raising the legal age for tobacco purchases and approving the federal Equal Rights Amendment, guns remain a hard-line topic for rural legislators who control the committees that decide which bills survive.
More than a dozen gun-related bills died in a state Senate committee on Wednesday night and a similar slate fell in a House subcommittee on Thursday night. A ban on bump stocks — devices that boost a gun’s firing rate — survived in the Senate but was referred to another committee where it’s likely to disappear. And a House bill requiring home day-care providers to keep guns locked up around children is being retooled by Republicans and could yet make it to the floor.
The Northam administration has not given up on the red-flag bill and may introduce a measure directly, though it would still have to go through committees. “There are other ways,” Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said Thursday night after the House subcommittee killed it on a party-line vote. “It’s not over till it’s over.”
Sponsored by Del. Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan (D-Fairfax), House Bill 1763 would have allowed law enforcement officers to ask a judge to take guns away from a person who was deemed to pose “a substantial risk of injury to himself or others.” It has support from the Virginia Law Enforcement Sheriffs organization, which represents 86 sheriff’s departments statewide that handle law enforcement for their communities.
Such laws — known as extreme risk protection orders or red-flag laws — have become popular in recent years as a tool to help prevent suicides and mass shootings. A school safety commission chartered by President Trump endorsed the laws last year as “a temporary way to keep those who threaten society from possessing or purchasing firearms.”
Maryland’s legislature passed one last year and it was signed into law by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
“I had hoped that this bill would show itself as one that could break the partisan logjam we seem to be stuck in when it comes to gun safety bills,” Sullivan said Thursday night as he presented the bill.
But Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee is not a place where such hopes can bloom. Republicans there are proud to be the logjam on gun control bills.
“Our goal is never to infringe on someone’s Second Amendment rights,” subcommittee member Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) said Friday. “The problem with almost every single bill we saw last night was a lot of unintended consequences.”
One after another, the subcommittee called the bills up and shot them down. They included bills to let localities ban guns from libraries; adding Roanoke and Charlottesville to the list of places that can ban weapons with high-capacity magazines from public areas; allowing localities to regulate guns in public buildings; requiring owners to report the loss or theft of guns; update the existing ban on plastic guns to include those produced by 3-D printers; require universal background checks; ban bump stocks; and restore Virginia’s limit on purchasing no more than one handgun per month.
In each case, chairman Del. Matt Fariss (R-Campbell) would allow the patron to speak then would ask the audience for a show of hands, for or against. He permitted some audience members to make remarks, but only after asking, “Is it something we haven’t heard before?”
Then either Freitas or Del. Michael Webert (R-Fauquier) would move to “PBI,” or pass by indefinitely, which would kill the bill. The subcommittee’s four Republicans voted for, two Democrats against; next bill. Many delegates presented their bills with open resignation. Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) made a case for the committee to pass his bill on plastic guns, then added: “Though I don’t have much hope that’ll happen.”
There were two exceptions. One was a Republican bill to allow out-of-state residents to get a Virginia concealed-handgun permit, which passed on a party-line vote. And the other was the measure sponsored by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) that required home day-care centers to keep guns locked up.
Freitas told Hope that if the language could be tightened — so that antique firearms, for instance, would not be affected — it might get Republican support. The bill was set aside and talks were underway on Friday.
A similar scene had played out Wednesday night in the Senate, a chamber where one member — Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) — has been wearing a pistol on her hip during floor sessions. In the full Senate Courts of Justice Committee, three Republicans voted in favor of the bump-stock ban but sent it to the Finance Committee. The committee did the same thing last year and the bill never emerged from Finance.
The Senate committee also debated a red-flag bill proposed by Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax), but it failed on a 7-to-7 vote. One Republican voted in favor of that bill: Glen Sturtevant, whose suburban Richmond district went heavily for Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) in last year’s elections.
Polling has shown that Virginians are increasingly in favor of gun control measures. A Quinnipiac University poll in April 2017 found that a majority of Virginians supported stricter overall gun laws, by a margin of 54 to 41. The same poll showed 94 percent of Virginians supported universal background checks to buy guns, and 62 percent favored a return to the one-gun-a-month limit.
Among suburban voters, 56 percent thought guns are too easy to buy in Virginia, while 51 percent of rural voters said the ease of buying a gun is “about right.” Most suburban and city residents said they would feel less safe if more people carried guns, while rural voters were about evenly split on the question.
But Republicans say they don’t think gun issues are going to make the difference in this fall’s elections. House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) has pushed a package of bills to make schools safer but made a point of keeping gun issues out of the equation.
Fariss, the chairman of the bill-killing subcommittee, dismissed the idea that suburban Republicans might benefit from supporting some gun safety measures.
“I hope that we’re not making legislation as serious as firearm legislation for political reasons,” Fariss said Friday. “I hope it’s all on what’s good policy for Virginia.”
Philip Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, said he was reassured that the legislature continues to defend against what he sees as efforts to chip away at the Second Amendment. “You can’t take away rights from people who aren’t doing whatever the problem is,” he said. “You’ve got to be ruled by logic, not emotion.”
Van Cleave caused a stir when he spoke before the Senate committee. A spectator made a loud reference to his appearance last year in a video with comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, in which Van Cleave endorsed giving guns to preschoolers.
The spectator left after the committee chairman summoned Capitol Police. Otherwise, Van Cleave said, he has been well received this year. Cohen “is a comedian; I think most people get it,” he said.
Democrats said a few more bills aimed at gun safety could yet gain traction. Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), the House minority leader, is proposing to eliminate sales tax for certain types of gun safes costing less than $1,000; her bill gained support last year from Van Cleave’s group. And, as importantly, it’s not before Fariss’s subcommittee.
But the GOP blockade against gun control may hand Democrats in competitive suburban districts an issue to run on in November.
“At the end of the day I tell people, sometimes you can’t change people’s minds and so you need to change their seats,” Northam said in a recent interview. “And so that’s what I plan to work on in ’19.”