RICHMOND — A Virginia Senate panel on Wednesday scrapped a raft of gun-control bills while advancing measures intended to expand gun rights.
Among the legislation was one, proposed by Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), that would have created a way for authorities to remove firearms from people deemed by a Circuit Court judge to be at “substantial risk” of injury to themselves or others.
“There are people slipping through the cracks who are a danger,” said Lori Haas, a gun-safety activist whose daughter was injured in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. “It is not meant to send somebody into your home unnecessarily.”
The Republican-led Senate Courts of Justice Committee easily defeated that bill and others aiming to tighten gun restrictions, sometimes on party-line votes, sometimes with support from a gun-rights Democrat, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of rural Bath County. In so doing, members often voiced concerns about the constitutionality of the measures.
“Doesn’t it bother you that a person’s residence could be searched?” Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-Stafford) said in relation to Barker’s bill. Stuart said he would prefer that people suffering mental-health crises be removed from their guns via a commitment process rather than having their guns removed from them.
“If we have the ability to get someone help that needs help,” Stuart said, “why do we need to search their home?”
The General Assembly is considering dozens of gun-related bills over the 60-day session that began last week. While guns have always been a hot-button issue in Virginia, this year’s battle mirrors the one raging at the national level, with despair over several high-profile shooting deaths mixing with fears of unchecked executive power. Last month, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) announced that the commonwealth will no longer recognize many out-of-state concealed handgun permits, a move that coincides with a national push to circumvent legislatures opposed to tightening gun laws, enraging gun-rights enthusiasts.
Indeed, the Senate committee Wednesday also passed several bills aimed at expanding gun rights. The most sweeping, proposed by Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), would do away with the need to obtain a government permit to carry a concealed weapon.
The committee scrapped legislation that would have required applicants to demonstrate competence with a handgun before receiving a concealed handgun permit. It rejected a measure to outlaw the open carry of loaded firearms in public places with some exceptions.
Two bills meant to prohibit children as young as 4 from using a firearm or pneumatic gun drew impassioned testimony after it became clear that the measures would apply to BB guns. Bill Heipp of Midlothian stepped up to tell the committee that he taught his sons how to shoot at a young age.
“None of my kids are afraid of guns,” he said. “A lot of that is because they were introduced in a safe environment, at an early age, and given good coaching by a concerned parent. This bill would stuff all that.”
Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), whose bill would have applied to children as old as 7, said he would be willing to amend it so it would not apply to BB guns. But the committee showed no appetite for that, either.
Democrats who sponsored the gun-control bills were hardly surprised.
“It’s not like I didn’t see that one coming,” Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) told the committee after it rejected one of her bills, which would have required all buyers at gun shows to undergo background checks before purchasing firearms. Current law requires gun dealers to make those checks, but not private sellers.
Marsden expressed frustration after the meeting.
“Guns are not our problem; obsession with guns is our problem,” he said. “It is the primary voter in Republican districts, several thousand people, who are . . . making it impossible for our legislators to do anything regardless of how benign it may be because it’s the camel’s nose under the tent.”
But gun-rights supporters said the measures would have infringed upon the rights of responsible, law-abiding people.
The committee approved several gun-rights bills, including one that would allow the state’s judges to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Another would allow retired law-
enforcement officers who annually meet the training and qualifications of active officers to carry concealed handguns in airports and schools.
The most far-reaching of the approved bills was Black’s, which would lift the permitting requirement for carrying a concealed weapon. The measure, which he referred to as “constitutional carry,” now goes to the full Senate for its consideration.
“It’s based on the idea that the Second Amendment is a constitutional right and that citizens have a right to carry firearms without permission of the government,” Black said. “It’s analogous to the First Amendment, where you don’t need a government permit to tell you what you can say and what you can’t.”
Under the bill, the state would continue to issue concealed handgun permits for people who want them, as might be the case for those who travel with their guns out of state, Black said. People who are not entitled to carry concealed weapons under current law, such as felons, would still be prohibited from doing so.