Virginia’s historic gun control fight, explained

Virginia’s historic gun control fight, explained

Virginia Democrats’ push for new gun control laws has already attracted a huge backlash. Tens of thousands of gun rights supporters rallied in the state capital, Richmond, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to protest the proposals. The majority of Virginia counties have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” that won’t enforce laws they claim are unconstitutional — a not-so-implicit threat against the new gun control proposals.

Compared to other states, though, the proposals under consideration in Virginia aren’t so radical. They would strengthen gun control laws, but they wouldn’t turn the state into the strictest in the country — far from it.

The bills that currently seem most likely to pass are universal background checks, a purchase limit for one handgun a month, a “red flag” law letting authorities temporarily seize a person’s guns if he’s deemed a threat, and a law giving local governments the ability to ban guns in public spaces during permitted events.

These measures are a far cry from, say, Massachusetts’s laws requiring a license to buy and own a firearm. They’re not anywhere as comprehensive as California’s laws, which, among other measures, ban assault weapons and require a 10-day waiting period for firearm sales. In fact, one of the Virginia proposals — the one-gun-a-month limit — simply brings back a law that was repealed in 2012.

But there are several reasons Virginia became such a focal point in the fight for stronger gun laws. For one, the state is home to the National Rifle Association’s headquarters, a testament to the state’s history as a haven for gun rights.

At the same time, Virginia has swung blue in recent years, with Virginians electing two Democratic governors, including current Gov. Ralph Northam, in a row, and flipping the legislature in 2019 to Democrats for the first time in decades. This blue surge has been fueled in part by Democrats’ very vocal support for gun control, particularly after 2019’s Virginia Beach mass shooting.

On a national level, gun control has gotten more attention due to the March for Our Lives and the broader movement that came out of the 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting, as well as the increased attention to mass shootings in the US in recent years. That’s led some states — including other gun rights havens like Vermont and Florida — to pass stricter laws. Given its status as a swing state and the home of the NRA, Virginia has been a special case for the gun control movement to prove its broad political appeal — and it seems the movement really is about to land a big win there.

That Virginia’s push for new gun laws is getting so much attention also speaks to one place where gun control bills are not passing: Congress. Despite a push by Democrats and some Republicans to pass universal background checks and other measures at the federal level, particularly after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Congress has failed to enact any significant changes in federal gun laws since the 1990s.

That’s left it to the states to take action. While the research and data suggest states are limited in how much they can curb gun violence on their own, the evidence indicates that stricter gun laws do help. In a state with more than 1,000 gun deaths a year, then, lives are at stake.

What Virginia’s gun control bills would do

Northam pushed the state legislature to pass a package of gun control measures last year. The package failed, but with Democrats now in control of the legislature after the 2019 elections, he’s renewed his proposal. That package includes, according to Northam’s office:

  • A universal background check measure that would require background checks for all sales, including private transactions
  • A limit on handgun purchases, allowing only one purchase in each 30-day period
  • A “red flag” law that would allow courts and law enforcement to temporarily seize a person’s guns if he’s deemed a danger to himself or others
  • A law letting local governments ban guns in public spaces during permitted events
  • A ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines
  • A requirement that lost and stolen guns are reported to law enforcement
  • A prohibition on people under protective orders owning guns
  • Stiffer penalties for letting children access loaded, unsecured guns

Whether the state legislature actually takes up the full package remains to be seen. So far, the Virginia Senate has passed universal background checks (with exemptions for transfers in gun ranges, immediate family members, and other specific circumstances); the one-handgun-a-month law; the “red flag” legislation; and a bill empowering local governments to ban guns at public spaces during permitted events. It’s still unclear how many other bills stand to pass, particularly whether the very controversial assault weapons ban will make it.

It’s also not clear when the Virginia House will move on the proposals.

For Virginia, these proposals would mark a significant shift. The Giffords Law Center, a gun control advocacy group, has scored Virginia a “D” for its gun laws, noting that the state lacks universal background checks, a gun license requirement, an assault weapons ban, a requirement to report lost or stolen guns, and a waiting period for purchases, among other gaps. Northam’s proposals wouldn’t close all these gaps, but they would make a big dent in the issue.

This is in many ways what voters asked for in 2019. Democrats last year won the legislature running on a gun control platform. Before the election, a poll by the Washington Post and the Schar School found that Virginia voters ranked “gun policy” as their top issue — buoyed by the mass shooting at Virginia Beach last year. A recent poll by the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy found a majority of Virginia voters back several gun control proposals, from universal background checks to an assault weapons ban.

The marked shift, though, is exactly what makes Virginia’s proposals so controversial.

The gun control proposals have inspired a backlash

As the prospects of new gun control laws have grown in Virginia, so have the protests around such proposals.

Most recently, more than 20,000 people on Monday marched and rallied in Richmond, the state capital, to defend their gun rights. Despite concerns that the protests would be hijacked by the racists and extremists who led the violent Charlottesville rally in 2017, the Richmond protests came and went with no violence.

In the past few months, more than 100 localities across Virginia have taken their own action by declaring themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.” Inspired by the “sanctuary city” movement for immigration laws, Second Amendment sanctuaries claim they won’t enforce any laws that they feel violate the Constitution and especially the Second Amendment. The concept has grown in prominence as gun rights groups, including the NRA and the Virginia Citizens Defense League, have successfully lobbied municipalities to declare themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries.

Other officials, including Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, argue that these declarations carry no force of law. Generally, the courts decide in the US legal system whether an enacted measure is constitutional, not local governments.

But the Second Amendment sanctuary movement sets up the possibility that cities and counties will defy the state government and, in effect, do as they please. Northam warned against that, saying there would be “consequences” if law enforcement doesn’t enforce the state’s new gun laws.

Part of the movement seems driven by misinformation. Opponents of the proposals have warned that the new measures, particularly the assault weapons ban, would lead to the mass confiscation of firearms and mass incarceration of gun owners. The bills would do no such thing; Northam’s proposed assault weapons ban, for instance, includes a grandfather clause that would let people keep guns they already own as long as the weapons are registered. But fears of mass confiscation are prominent among gun rights advocates, who often see stricter gun laws, especially registration requirements, as just one step toward a bigger crackdown.

And despite the insinuation that the gun control proposals in Virginia violate the Second Amendment, none of the policies — which are law in other states — have been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, according to UCLA law professor Adam Winkler.

The backlash also reflects Virginia’s closely divided political landscape. Virginia has long been a swing state, with the state House, after all, only recently flipping from Republican to Democrat.

As Jane Coaston recently wrote for Vox, “Virginia’s recent political shift toward the Democratic Party elides just how divided the state is politically between Republican-leaning and less populated rural areas and Democratic-leaning urban and suburban regions in the north of the state and around Virginia’s flagship universities, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.” Virginia Mercury columnist Bob Lewis even wrote that “Virginia feel more like two states than a commonwealth.”

This political division, however, also makes the state a big target for gun control advocates: If they can win in a purple state, that demonstrates their movement’s broad political appeal.

There’s a personal element to it too, since the NRA’s headquarters are in Fairfax, Virginia.

All of this falls under a broader national conversation about guns. Between Parkland and other mass shootings, there is a growing call for lawmakers to act on gun violence. As the Trace, a news outlet focused on guns, reported, this year already stands to be particularly big for the issue between the 2020 elections, Supreme Court cases, and state and local proposals. Whatever Virginia ultimately does will come under heightened scrutiny in that context.

The measures could reduce gun violence — to a point

Northam and his Democratic allies have emphasized that the goal of stricter gun laws is to save lives.

To that end, they’re backed by the research: A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives. A review of the US evidence by RAND also linked some gun control measures, including background checks, to reduced injuries and deaths.

Not all gun laws are created equal. The evidence for assault weapons bans is particularly weak, in large part because the guns make up a small fraction of gun deaths, especially in comparison to handguns. And recent studies produced lackluster findings for universal background checks. On the flip side, a growing body of evidence, from researchers at Johns Hopkins University, has suggested that laws requiring a license to buy and own guns are particularly effective.

Still, some experts argue it’s a combination of stricter gun laws that can do the trick. That’s what the review of 130 studies concluded, citing the “potential synergistic effects, or the aggregated individual effects of multiple laws, when they are simultaneously implemented within a narrow time window” to explain its findings.

Or as Harvard Injury Control Research Center director David Hemenway previously told me, “I think hardly anything is a big deal. I’m convinced that large numbers of small things add up.”

State laws like the ones Virginia is proposing, however, are particularly limited. Because travel and trade is largely unrestricted within the US, it’s easy for people to ship guns from state to state. That means someone can travel to a state with weaker gun laws, buy them, and take them back to states with stronger laws. Although there are some federal and state efforts to stop this, it’s a reality in America.

Virginia knows this well. Due to its relatively weak gun laws, the state has often acted as a crucial hub in the “Iron Pipeline” from the South to Northern states that have stricter firearm laws. In New York state, for example, almost 74 percent of guns used in crimes between 2010 and 2015 came from states with lax gun laws, based on a report from the New York State Office of the Attorney General. About 15 percent of likely trafficked crime guns came from Virginia — the most from any single state.

This phenomenon, in which guns flow from places with weak laws to places with strong laws, is common across the US, including in California, Chicago, and Massachusetts.

The upshot is that states’ stricter gun laws do reduce gun deaths, but they can only go so far. That’s why advocates argue that the issue ultimately has to be taken up by Congress — to set a floor for reasonable gun legislation that could do more to prevent gun violence than any local or state action.

As it stands, though, the US has the weakest gun laws in the developed world, and federal lawmakers are unlikely to change that as long as the US Senate remains in Republican control. So Virginia Democrats are taking matters into their own hands.


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