Lots of passion, little action on Virginia gun bills

Travis Fain
Contact Reportertfain@dailypress.com
Activists on both sides of gun debate rally at Capitol, 100+ gun bills filed.

Few issues generate more passion and less legislative movement at the Virginia Capitol than guns.

Hundreds of people on both sides of the issue descended on the Capitol on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday, a traditional day for grassroots lobbying here at the General Assembly.

Gun rights supporters carried handguns strapped to their belts in an open expression of the 2nd Amendment. They wore orange stickers that said "guns save lives."

"If we don't exercise our rights, if we don't come out here as a force, then our voice doesn't get heard," said Gene Warren, who traveled from Middlesex for Monday's lobbying day.

Those favoring gun control held a vigil for victims and a rally for political action. They wore yellow stickers that said "background checks save lives" and heard from the state's governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, all Democrats and all activists for more gun control.

On the Senate floor, legislators traded statistics in 45 minutes worth of speeches on the gun control issue. No bills were debated, but that will come soon enough.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a hard-right gun group, said it's tracking 102 gun bills this year; some it supports, some it opposes. Gun control advocates said they've identified upward of 30 bills they'll oppose this session.

But with the political math as it is – gun-supporting Republicans in control of the House of Delegates, a near partisan split in the Senate and a Democratic governor vowing vetoes – nothing of substance is likely to run the full gauntlet and become new law.

Gun control advocates don't have the votes to get anything through the legislature, and gun rights supporters can't overcome Gov. Terry McAuliffe's veto.

They will still try, though much of the battle has shifted to executive actions. McAuliffe has banned open carrying in executive agency buildings, a category that doesn't include the Capitol Building or General Assembly Building.

His administration is also encouraging judges who sign protective orders in domestic violence cases to strip offenders of their ability to own a gun, at least temporarily. McAuliffe referenced this Monday when he told ralliers that abusers shouldn't have a gun in their house, "and we're going to come get it."

The administration would prefer legislation on the issue, though, and bills that would strip gun rights from people convicted of stalking and misdemeanor domestic violence assaults is queued up again after finding failure last year in both chambers.

The governor and his supporters are also pushing legislation to require background checks on nearly all firearm sales. Current law requires checks for licensed dealers, but not sales between individuals. It is often called "the gun show loophole."

One of the bigger priorities for gun advocates is reversing Attorney General Mark Herring's move last month to cancel concealed carry reciprocity agreements with some 25 other states. Because those states are said to have lesser licensing requirements, Virginia will no longer allow people with concealed carry permits from those states to carry concealed here without a Virginia permit.

That's likely to lead those states to cancel reciprocity for Virginia concealed carry holders.

Herring, McAuliffe and their supporters say they're just enforcing Virginia law, which gives the attorney general and superintendent of state police a duty to judge other state's regulations. Gun rights supporters see the change as little more than harassment of law-abiding gun owners.

State Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg, has a bill that would honor concealed carry permits from every state. All 21 Senate Republicans have signed on, as have three Democrats: State sens. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax.

That's more than enough support to pass the bill, but Reeves needs three more Senate Democrats to overturn an expected McAuliffe veto, and that's a tall order.

McAuliffe didn't take a hard position on this bill Monday, but promised in his State of the Commonwealth speech to veto bills that "limit this Commonwealth's ability to keep Virginians safe from gun violence." A spokesman for Herring said Monday the attorney general opposes the bill.

Reeves said he's trying to avoid a political spat, he just wants to help concealed carry permitees.

"We have really screwed concealed carry owners," he said.

Reeves noted that Virginia recognizes drivers licenses from all 50 states, even though not all states require the annual safety inspection Virginia does.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757.525.1759.

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