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RICHMOND — Last month’s mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school has revived a national debate about firearms laws, but gun control legislation is meeting a familiar fate in Virginia’s General Assembly.
Legislation aimed at closing Virginia’s so-called “gun show loophole” won’t advance this year, but members of a state Senate committee pledged last week to work toward a compromise that could expand the use of criminal background checks for firearms sales at events like the annual Labor Day gun show in Hillsville.
The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 8-7 on Jan. 23 to kill legislation (Senate Bill 1001) that was originally designed to require criminal records checks for all firearms transactions at gun shows, including those by private sellers.
The bill was voted down after committee members on both sides of the issue failed to cement a compromise that would enable private sellers at gun shows to seek background checks on a voluntary basis.
A similar bill was shot down in the House of Delegates last week.
Gun control advocates for years have pressed legislators to pass a law requiring criminal records checks for all firearms sales at gun shows. Buyers can purchase guns from private sellers at gun shows without submitting to a criminal records check.
Federally licensed dealers who sell firearms at the same shows must conduct the checks.
Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County), who initiated the efforts to work out a compromise, promised to continue negotiations and come up with a bill for next year. Stanley said he and other committee members had developed “a working solution in conceptual form,” but need more time to work on the legislation.
(Stanley’s 20th Senate District includes Carroll County, Hillsville and Galax.)
Under the framework that Stanley described today, gun show promoters “would create a kiosk or a desk where voluntary checks could occur.”
Stanley said the legislation won’t require private sellers to use the background checks, but would contain incentives to encourage them to use the system and make background checks “a normal practice.”
“I was encouraged by both sides’ willingness to sit at the table and discuss these issues openly and try to find a solution,” Stanley said.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Henry Marsh (D-Richmond), asked the committee to hold the bill and give members more time to work toward a compromise this year. But the committee’s chairman, Sen. Thomas Norment (R-James City County), insisted that the panel act on the bill.
“I am not of an inclination to continue to drag this on,” Norment said.
Norment was the only Republican on the committee to vote for a revised version of Marsh’s bill, which would have allowed private sellers to consign firearms to federally licensed dealers who can access the criminal records database.
Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke) was the only Democrat on the committee who voted against the bill. But Edwards, who has been involved in the negotiations, also wanted more time to work on it this year.
“I think everybody will be satisfied once this is done,” said Edwards, who often breaks with his party on gun issues.
The Senate committee meeting was held the same day that a large group of gun rights advocates were on Capitol Square to lobby legislators. These groups had vowed to lobby vigorously to defeat the bill if it came before the General Assembly.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Stanley said last week of the bill. “The devil’s in the details.”
Firearms bills defeated in
In the House of Delegates last week, a subcommittee voted to kill gun show background check legislation that was nearly identical to the Senate bill.
The House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee voted 5-0 to kill the bill (HB 2025) sponsored by Del. Patrick Hope, (D-Arlington).
Opponents of the bill argued that the requirement could affect gun transfers between family members and would pose a burden for gun dealers who would run the computerized checks.
The Republican-dominated House committee also defeated a proposed ban on the sale of assault firearms and large-capacity ammunition magazines in Virginia and deferred action on a bill (HB 2025) requiring schools to have at least one employee or volunteer to be trained to have a concealed handgun on campus.
The bill sponsored by Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William County) was referred to a school safety task force appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell.
The subcommittee met the day after President Barack Obama announced that he will ask Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and require universal background checks of gun buyers.
Some General Assembly Democrats said Virginia should not wait for federal action to pursue new gun safety laws.
But, as the House subcommittee vote demonstrated, gun control advocates face an uphill fight in a legislature that largely has resisted measures to curb access to firearms.
“The public is going to have to rise up and let their legislators know that this is important,” said House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville), at a news conference hours after the House subcommittee meeting.
After the 2007 mass shootings at Virginia Tech, an expert panel appointed by then-Gov. Tim Kaine recommended legislation that would require background checks for all firearms transactions, including private sales. But bills that would expand background checks to private sales at gun shows have failed in the 2008 General Assembly session and every session since.
“We’ve ignored that recommendation for 5 1/2 years,” said Lori Haas, a gun control activist whose daughter was wounded in the Tech shootings.
The subcommittee also defeated a bill (HB 2207) that would ban the sale of assault firearms and large capacity magazines. The bill’s sponsor, Del. Joe Morrissey (D-Henrico County) took an unloaded AK-47 onto the House floor earlier in the day to make a pitch for his bill and angered some Republicans when he displayed the weapon with his thumb on the trigger.
Del. Tommy Wright (R-Lunenburg County), the subcommittee chairman, raised concerns that the gun control bills would be a first step in a larger effort to restrict firearms rights.
“What starts out as a ban or a regulation on one firearm winds up being a ban or a regulation on all firearms, or registration and then possibly confiscation,” Wright said.
Marshall’s bill (HB 1557) to require schools to have a designated armed staff person had strong support from gun rights groups and several speakers — including two teachers — who attended the hearing in an overcrowded conference room.
The bill would require the designated employee to have a concealed carry permit receive training and meet other qualifications.
But Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah County) asked the panel to refer the bill to McDonnell’s school safety task force.
Secretary of Public Safety Marla Decker sent a letter to House Speaker Bill Howell on last week, asking that “potential legislation” dealing with school safety be provided to the task force, which will make initial recommendations by the end of the month. Gilbert said a more thorough review could give Marshall’s bill a better chance to pass.
“I think it’s going to do a disservice to your bill to shove it through here, and if you’re really concerned about getting something done for our children, this needs a larger vetting process,” Gilbert said.