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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam gestures as he addresses an anti-gun violence rally at the Capitol in Richmond. [AP Photo/Steve Helber]

Politics

Virginia Lawmakers Advance Historic Gun Reform Agenda. Here’s What It Would Do.

From universal background checks to a red flag law, the state is on the verge of overhauling its gun policies.

Less than two weeks after gun rights groups and scattered militia members thronged Virginia’s capital to aggressively protest gun reform measures, that package of legislation has taken a significant step toward becoming law. On January 30, the Democratic-led House of Delegates passed seven bills that would overhaul gun policy in the Old Dominion. The state Senate has already approved analogues to five of the measures, and Democratic Governor Ralph Northam is expected to sign the reconciled versions that come to his desk.

The passage of a comprehensive reform package in Virginia will cap a sea change for gun politics in the state, which is home to the National Rifle Association’s headquarters and an avid grassroots gun culture. After a mass shooting last May in Virginia Beach, Northam and his party — joined by national gun violence prevention groups — made the issue a major priority. Polls indicated that voters ranked gun violence as a top concern. Last November, for the first time in more than two decades, they rewarded Democrats with unified control of the General Assembly.

Before Virginia’s 2020 legislative session even began, gun rights activists were mounting a fierce backlash, pushing rural counties across the state to declare themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.” But Democrats have been undeterred. “For too many years this body has put the convenience of gun owners above all else,” Delegate Patrick A. Hope, chair of the House Public Safety Committee that oversees gun laws, said on the floor as his chamber pushed through the bills this week. “And that has led to tragic consequences time and time again.”

The House and Senate must still work out the final details of the package, but the broad outlines are clear. Here’s a roundup of the new gun laws likely to take effect in Virginia.

Universal background checks

Nationally, research indicates that about one in five gun sales and transfers do not go through the federal gun background check system, which exempts transactions between private sellers and buyers. Individual unvetted gun sales have had fatal consequences; collectively, the private-sale loophole acts as a sieve for gun restrictions, undermining efforts to limit firearm access by categories of people deemed too high-risk to buy guns.

Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., have extended gun background checks to cover at least some private sales, according to Giffords Law Center. Adding Virginia to the list will mean that a majority of Americans — roughly 52 percent of the population — are subject to universal background check.

Extreme risk protection orders 

So-called red flag laws provide a tool for temporarily disarming legal gun owners who’ve become a clear and imminent danger to themselves or others. Research indicates they may help to reduce gun suicides and prevent mass shootings. While gun owners subject to extreme risk protection orders can get their firearms back after the orders expire, they’ve raised the hackles of hardliners who’ve absorbed the gun lobby’s warnings of government “confiscation.” The National Rifle Association has opposed red flag bills when they allow for emergency gun seizures before the gun owner can appear before a court to contest it.

The red flag legislation moving in Virginia is relatively narrow, allowing only law enforcement officials or state attorneys to seek orders for temporarily removing firearms from at-risk people. A dozen of the 17 states where extreme risk protection orders are already in place also allow family members to request them.

Efforts to stymie gun trafficking

Another bill passed by the Virginia House would set a one-per-month limit on handgun purchases, restoring a restriction that was in place from 1993 to 2012, when Republicans repealed it. Virginia is a major source for crime guns recovered outside its borders, and supporters of the bill argue that reinstating the cap will help stem trafficking. A 1995 analysis of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives data from the gun reform group Brady showed that after the old handgun limit went into effect, crime guns traced back to Virginia dealers dropped significantly.

A separate bill approved by the state House would require gun owners to report lost or stolen guns to police. As The Trace has reported, such mandates may help law enforcement identify gun-running rings. A Senate version is still under consideration, though Democratic state Senator John Edwards, who leads the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, told The Washington Times that he doesn’t know if the bill will pass his chamber.

Protections for children and abuse victims

People subject to a permanent protective order for abusing a spouse or live-in partner are barred from possessing firearms. But federal law makes no provision for ensuring that they turn over any guns they may already have. One of the Virginia bills would require abusers served with permanent protective orders to surrender their guns to police, a gun dealer, or a private party within 24 hours.

Another bill, which has yet to move through the Senate, would update the state’s child access prevention law to make it a crime to leave an unlocked, loaded gun accessible to teens between the ages of 14 and 18. Current law only covers kids younger than 14.

Power for cities and towns to establish their own gun ordinances

Virginia allows guns to be openly carried in many public settings. It also forbids local governments from setting any firearm restrictions that go beyond laws passed by the General Assembly, making Virginia one of 45 states with a pre-emption law that curbs gun safety efforts by cities and towns. The final gun measure to pass the Virginia House by the end of January would reverse that — and open the door for mayors and city councils to pursue their own firearm restrictions.

What’s not yet in the package: An assault weapons ban

In January, Democrats in the Virginia Senate yanked a sweeping ban on assault-style guns, which would have both barred future sales of weapons meeting its criteria and outlawed those already owned by residents. The House equivalent does include a grandfather clause for existing assault-style guns; lawmakers in that chamber are still debating it.