RICHMOND — For a General Assembly pondering big issues such as Medicaid expansion and utility regulation, a new commemorative license plate seems like an insignificant topic.
That one, Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said, was not just "a little ol' license plate bill."
"I think the delegate understands it's much more than that," Gilbert said during floor debate Thursday. "It's him trying to build a narrative that gun violence is somehow different from regular violence."
Simon's bill touched one of the rawest nerves remaining in a legislative body that was significantly refashioned after the Democratic sweep in last fall's elections. Republicans held onto a majority by the barest of margins, 51 seats to 49, and leaders have emphasized efforts to cooperate across the aisle.
But even as the legislature takes halting steps toward a compromise on the long-denied Democratic goal of Medicaid expansion, the topic of guns remains a sharp dividing line.
So far this session, any bills aimed at restricting access to guns have died in House and Senate committees, including measures to expand background checks and measures to ban the use of "bump stocks," the devices that allow a semiautomatic to shoot more rounds per minute, mimicking a machine gun.
Simon's license-plate bill brought that philosophical difference to the House floor for the first time this session.
The real problem, Gilbert said during debate, is violence generally. Even a truck can be an instrument of murder, he said.
"It is the singular focus on the instrument and not violence itself that is troubling to some of us," he said.
Simon countered that guns are a special case. "There is a serious issue of gun violence in this country," he said. "We see it every day."
He was presenting the bill on behalf of constituents who gathered more than 450 signatures to petition for it. They wanted to draw attention to gun violence in particular, he said. If Gilbert wants a plate against violence in general, he said, "he can get his own bill."
Del. Matt Fariss (R-Campbell) amended Simon's bill to direct excess funds generated by the plate — which would cost $25 a year beyond the usual plate renewal fee — into a state fund for mental health services.
Simon objected to the change, saying the Republicans were trying to shift the blame for violence onto the mentally ill. "That's not supported by facts," he said, drawing applause from fellow Democrats. Only 4 percent of violence against others is attributed to mental illness, he said.
"People suffering from mental illness are far more likely to become victims of violence," he said.
Simon pointed out that Virginia already offers a plate commemorating the National Rifle Association, as well as the "Choose Life" slogan of the antiabortion movement, among more than 250 other specialty plates.
With the funding amendment, the bill drew support from most Republicans. It cleared final passage Friday by a vote of 89-to-8.