RICHMOND — Frustrated by a lack of legislative progress on gun control, Gov. Terry McAuliffe promised zealous enforcement of existing laws Thursday, tasking Attorney General Mark Herring and others with a "creative and aggressive" crackdown on illegal sales.
McAuliffe said a new task force will find "innovative ways" to fight gun crimes, with a particular focus on keeping guns away from people prohibited from owning them. The Attorney General's Office will coordinate efforts and, in some cases, exercise a newly granted power to prosecute cases itself.
McAuliffe said the state will ask judges to increase gun forfeiture orders in domestic violence cases, with a goal of taking guns from anyone under a protective order. He also said a tip line is coming for people to report illegal sales and other gun crimes, and that the state will lead a more intense push to track every gun used in a crime through the federal eTrace system.
Most local police agencies already are judicious about the process, a McAuliffe spokesman said later. Those that are not will be encouraged.
The governor also banned the open carrying of firearms, except for law enforcement, from state buildings under executive branch control. A similar ban on concealed carry is coming soon, he said, but requires more regulatory process.
The State Capitol and General Assembly Building will not be affected, and guns were already banned in judiciary buildings.
The announcements represent executive branch efforts to accomplish portions of legislative goals. McAuliffe said he'll continue to push for more permanent changes during next year's General Assembly session, though Republican control of the Virginia House of Delegates makes them political long shots.
McAuliffe has called repeatedly on the assembly to expand background checks to include person-to-person gun sales in Virginia. Current law requires them only when a licensed dealer is involved. The governor and other Democrats also want a law taking guns from people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors and related crimes, such as stalking.
For now, the governor promised an intense new focus, not only on guns used in mass shootings, but also on day-to-day gun crimes. There were 4,284 of those last year, Herring said, and 5,200 gun deaths in Virginia since 2010.
McAuliffe said he'll depend on Herring, whom Republicans frequently have accused of bending the law to fit his politics, to draw lines between executive authority and changes that require legislative approval.
"If he gives me the legal authority to act, I will," McAuliffe said.
Herring said executive acts are "no substitute for things we can do through the legislature," and he echoed the governor's frustration about a lack of General Assembly support.
"I know this is a complex issue," he said. "But that can't be a reason to do nothing. … These shouldn't be tough votes."
State Republican leaders reacted with promises to monitor the executive branch and criticism of McAuliffe's philosophies. Speaker of the House William Howell said in a statement that his caucus has argued for years that "the best way to keep Virginians safe is to enforce existing law."
Howell, R-Stafford, promised to monitor the new task force and said the House would "continue to focus on investing in mental and behavioral health care improvements." In the same statement, House Majority Leader Kirk Cox said he's confident that local law enforcement already enforces "all of Virginia's laws to their full extent."
"The Governor and Attorney General should take extra care before interfering with their work," Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said in the same written statement.
House Republicans deemed the gun ban in state buildings to be "shortsighted." Del. Todd Gilbert, a GOP leader on crime issues, promised to review the policy during the 2016 legislative session, which starts in January.
McAuliffe was backed Thursday by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who along with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner has called for federal reforms not unlike the state legislative changes McAuliffe seeks. At least 22 uniformed police officers also attended the governor's news conference Thursday, as did the parents of a Virginia journalist gunned down in August.
Andy and Barbara Parker have called for gun reforms repeatedly since their daughter, Alison, was killed. McAuliffe said he has spent a good deal of time discussing the issue with the Parkers, but twice on Thursday referred to Andy Parker as Alan.
Gun control advocates acknowledged the uphill political fight they face, even with polling showing broad support for expanded background checks. But they promised resolve, and McAuliffe called out the National Rifle Association as a front for gun manufacturers, not responsible gun owners.
The NRA didn't respond to that charge in a statement released Thursday evening, but said it has been calling for officials to enforce existing laws "all along."
"If Governor McAuliffe and his former boss Hillary Clinton were serious about preventing tragedies like Virginia Tech & Roanoke instead of exploiting them, they'd address our nation's broken mental health system," spokesman Lars Dalseide said in a statement.
Kaine, D-Va., spoke at length during Thursday's news conference about Prof. Liviu Librescu, who was killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. Librescu, according to witnesses, blocked a classroom doorway so his students could escape the gunman.
Librescu decided not to be a bystander, Kaine said, calling on other Virginians to raise their voices on gun control.
"For too long in this country, in this commonwealth … we've got too many bystanders," Kaine said. "We will win this fight."
Every seat in the General Assembly is up during the Nov. 3 elections, and while control of the House of Delegates isn't up for grabs, the narrowly divided state Senate is. The races are drawing money from both sides of the gun debate.
Former Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' Americans for Responsible Solutions group donated $50,000 earlier this year to McAuliffe's Common Good political action committee. The Washington Post reported last week that the group plans to spend $600,000 on key state Senate races.
The group issued a news release Thursday applauding McAuliffe's announcements.
The NRA has spent at least $33,100 on Virginia politicians and political groups this year, with all but $500 of that going to Republicans, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks campaign spending.
Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.