State lawmakers divided on firearms legislation
Legislators face pressure from gun-rights advocates and those who favor increased restrictions on firearms sales.
By Michael Sluss
RICHMOND -- Gun-rights advocates from around the state rallied on the frigid grounds of Capitol Square on Monday, most wearing orange stickers that read: "Guns Save Lives."
They gathered to demonstrate their opposition to new gun-control laws and their support for easing certain restrictions on Virginians with concealed carry permits. Among other things, rally leaders vowed to fight legislation that would require criminal background checks for all firearms sales at gun shows, including private sales that are now unregulated in the state.
"They want to register guns; that's what this is all about," said Larry Pratt, the executive director of the Gun Owners of America, who spoke at the rally. "They want to get rid of all private transactions."
Watching from a distance were two parents of students wounded in the April 16, 2007, mass shootings at Virginia Tech. They had signs with images of John and Robert Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and the message: "Guns Didn't Save These Lives."
"I actually understand where these people are coming from in the sense of understanding people's desire to look after themselves and be responsible for their own defense and things like that, especially the defense of the home," said Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin was seriously injured in the shootings that left 32 students and teachers dead before the shooter killed himself.
"But what I can't understand is how they think that the majority of the people who don't want to behave that way should be subjected to their side of the picture."
Long-running debates over gun control will continue in the state Capitol during this 46-day legislative session, and fall elections for statewide offices and the House of Delegates could heighten interest in the outcome.
A Senate committee on Monday is scheduled to hear a bill requiring the same criminal background checks for private sales at gun shows that must be done for transactions by federally licensed dealers.
Supporters had hoped the legislation would have the backing of the Virginia State Crime Commission, an advisory body that studies criminal justice issues and makes recommendations to the General Assembly. But the commission deadlocked on the issue earlier this month.
The panel's 6-6 vote did not deter Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, a perennial sponsor of legislation to close Virginia's so-called "gun-show loophole." Marsh introduced the bill and heads the Senate Courts of Justice Committee that will consider it Monday.
The same committee defeated the proposal last year, turning back a bill supported by Gov. Tim Kaine and several families of Tech shooting victims. Democrats John Edwards of Roanoke and Roscoe Reynolds of Henry County joined the committee's seven Republican members to defeat the bill.
Reynolds said at the time that the law would not have prevented the tragedy at Virginia Tech. His district also includes the town of Hillsville, which hosts a large gun show each year. Edwards said Friday that he remains opposed to the bill as Marsh introduced it.
Seung-Hui Cho, the mentally ill gunman responsible for the Tech shootings, did not purchase his firearms at gun shows. He was able to get them from licensed dealers because information about his mental illness was not entered into the database used for the instant background checks. Supporters of Marsh's bill argue that Cho could have avoided a background check by seeking out a private seller at a gun show.
"I'd like to see some prevention," Goddard said. "I'd like to see it difficult for criminals to get a gun."
Philip Van Cleave, the president of the pro-gun rights Virginia Citizens Defense League, remains adamantly opposed to Marsh's bill and vowed to "fight this full bore."
Van Cleave said he believes the climate in the General Assembly remains favorable for pro-gun organizations such as VCDL, which has about 4,000 members statewide.
"I don't see the shift away from us," he said. "The question is how much ground are we going to make up?"
Gun-rights advocates are making another push for legislation that would allow those with concealed carry permits to have guns in restaurants and bars that serve alcohol. Kaine last year vetoed a bill that would have allowed permit-holders to have concealed handguns in such establishments, as long as they consume no alcohol. Kaine cited public safety concerns in his veto message.
"There are a lot of supporters who want to keep the issue alive," said Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, who sponsored the bill last year and has introduced it again this year.
If it fails to become law this year, Hanger said, "it becomes an issue the candidates have to address" on the campaign trail.
The gun show legislation and Hanger's bill have divided Democrats in a year when the party hopes to win enough seats to gain a majority in the House. Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Henry County, the House minority leader, voted against the gun show legislation at a crime commission meeting this month. He also voted for Hanger's bill last year.
Armstrong's positions on gun issues often clash with those of House Democrats from urban and fast-growing suburban areas. He downplays those differences, saying, "We're not monolithic. Just because we're Democrats doesn't mean we agree on everything."
House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said gun-related issues could create problems for Armstrong as he recruits Democratic candidates around the state.
"How do the people in his district feel when he's out recruiting candidates whose views are diametrically opposed to theirs and his?" Griffith said.
The three Democrats running for governor -- Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath County, former Del. Brian Moran of Alexandria, and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe of McLean -- have voiced support for extending background checks to private sales at gun shows. Attorney General Bob McDonnell, the presumptive Republican nominee, opposes the legislation. But Deeds supported Hanger's bill last year, a stance that sets him apart from his Democratic rivals. McDonnell also supports Hanger's legislation, a spokesman said last week.
Griffith said it's too soon to tell whether gun-related issues will be major factors in the fall campaigns.
"I think it probably will have stronger legs in this cycle, but we'll have to wait and see," Griffith said.