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Gun show bill passes senate committee

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RICHMOND — A Senate committee on Monday endorsed legislation that would require criminal background checks for nearly all firearms purchased at gun shows like the annual Labor Day event in Hillsville, advancing a bill advocated by families and survivors of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee’s 8-7 vote advanced Senate Bill 1257 to close Virginia’s so-called “gun show loophole,” requiring the same criminal background checks for private sales at gun shows that must be done for transactions by federally licensed dealers.

The bill failed to advance beyond committee last year. But two Republicans who voted against the bill in 2008 — Thomas Norment of Williamsburg and Frederick Quayle of Suffolk — cast deciding votes that sent the bill to the floor.

“I always vote my conscience,” Norment said after the committee heard testimony on the bill.

Democrats John Edwards of Roanoke and Roscoe Reynolds of Henry County and Robert Hurt of Chatham voted against the bill.

Reynolds' district includes Hillsville, site of one of the largest gun shows on the East Coast.

Democrat Creigh Deeds voted for it after attaching amendments that create exceptions for buyers with concealed carry permits and for sales of antique weapons.

Gov. Tim Kaine and families of the Tech shooting victims have advocated for the legislation, arguing that broader background checks are needed to deny felons and those with dangerous mental illness an easy avenue to firearms. Opponents of the bill have questioned the measure’s effectiveness and warned that it could lead to restrictions on all private gun transactions.

Even if the full Senate passes the bill, the measure would face an uphill fight in the House of Delegates.

A House committee killed an identical bill last year by a decisive measure. Momentum for the legislation appeared to stall earlier this month when the Virginia State Crime Commission deadlocked on the measure.

Joseph Samaha, whose daughter Reema was killed in the Tech shootings, said he remained hopeful that the bill would pick up support.

“The country is changing,” Samaha said. “The state of Virginia is changing.”

The only Democrat on the Virginia State Crime Commission who voted against endorsing a bill to close the so-called gun show loophole didn’t do so without first complaining about the position he was in.

Del. Ward Armstrong (D-Henry County) — whose district includes Hillsville — questioned the motives behind his recent appointment to the commission, saying he was notified 72 hours earlier by fax from the office of House Speaker William Howell (R-Stafford) without being told about the upcoming vote on the gun show legislation.

Armstrong said he represents a district where the unemployment rate in parts is 9 percent, and one of the biggest economic drivers there happens to be the annual Labor Day gun show in Hillsville.

“We all know why, in part, this was done the way it was,” he said.

Armstrong, a defense attorney, said he was being asked to vote on a matter without the benefit of any testimony or evidence on the issue.

Much of that came at a commission meeting last month, when Armstrong was not a member.

The commission had an opening due to the resignation of Democrat Brian Moran, who is running for governor.

Commission Chairman David Albo (R-Fairfax County) said he simply suggested that Howell choose Armstrong for the spot because he was the highest ranking Democrat up for appointment.

Armstrong’s vote against the legislation contributed to a 6-6 tie, meaning the motion failed.

Afterward, an official with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said he didn’t buy Armstrong’s contention that he had to vote without full knowledge of the issue.

“To suggest he doesn’t know the gun show issue, it was purely a political statement,” said Chad Ramsey, associate director in the campaign’s state legislation and politics department.