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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 Gun Laws: The Big Changes Coming to the Old Dominion

What the commonwealth's reform package means for background checks, handgun limits, red flag orders, and more.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on April 10 signed into law five of the seven historic gun reforms that passed the Democrat-led General Assembly this session. The laws establish so-called red flag orders, expanded background checks, a one-per-month limit on handgun purchases, mandated reporting requirements for lost or stolen guns, and prohibitions on child access to firearms. The measures will take effect on July 1.

The legislature subsequently approved two amendments from Northam on remaining bills that given localities the power to establish their own gun ordinances and require people under permanent protective orders to surrender their guns within 24 hours. Those measures return to the governor’s desk.

The passage of a comprehensive reform package caps a sea change for gun politics in the Old Dominion, 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.” In January, gun rights groups and scattered militia members thronged Virginia’s capital to register their protests. But Democrats were 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 in January. “And that has led to tragic consequences time and time again.”

Here’s a roundup of the new gun laws set to take effect in Virginia.

Universal background checks

The more moderate state Senate prevailed in negotiations over this bill, which will expand gun background checks to private sales — but not transfers.

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 checks.

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 hard-liners 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 incoming red flag legislation 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 signed into law sets a one-per-month limit on handgun purchases, restoring a restriction that was in place from 1993 to 2012, when Republicans repealed it. People with concealed carry permits will be exempt. 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 incoming law requires gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms to police within 48 hours. As The Trace has reported, such mandates may help law enforcement identify gun-running rings.

Protections for children and abuse victims

One bill signed into law updates the state’s child access prevention law to make it a Class 1 misdemeanor to leave an unlocked, loaded gun accessible to kids under the age of 14. Previously, such a violation was a Class 3 misdemeanor.

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. The bill that passed the Virginia General Assembly requires abusers served with permanent protective orders to surrender their guns within 24 hours and certify that they have done so.

The legislature subsequently approved Northam’s amendment at the behest of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance that would “enhance safety for victims by allowing judges to hold the respondent in contempt of court if they fail to comply with the certification requirements.”

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. A measure passed by the General Assembly reverses that — and opens the door for mayors and city councils to pursue their own firearm restrictions in public buildings, parks, rec centers, and current other events.

The legislature later approved the governor’s amendment that offers exemptions for institutions of higher education.

What didn’t make it to the governor’s desk: 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 subsequently passed a version that included a grandfather clause for existing assault-style guns. But that version also failed in the Senate, when on February 17 a handful of Democrats joined with Republicans in killing the legislation in committee. Northam has vowed to press for the ban again next year.