RICHMOND, Va. -- Long lines wrapped around the Pocahontas building in downtown, as opponents and supporters of gun control flooded the Virginia Senate Judiciary committee room, a possible preview of “gun lobby” day one week from Monday.
During the committee meeting, Democrats advanced four gun bills long blocked by Republican lawmakers who controlled the committees. The votes played out strictly along a party-line vote.
SB 35 — Allowing localities to restrict firearms in certain public spaces
SB 69 — limiting the purchase of a handgun to one per month
SB 70 — stiffening background checks on firearms sales
SB 240 — so-called “red flag” law allowing law enforcement to temporarily remove a person’s firearms if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.
Gun control groups praised the votes, calling the bills “common sense” measures that will make Virginians safer by closing loopholes in state code and allowing law enforcement to quickly respond to warning signs if someone threatens violence. Gun rights organizations, including the National Rifle Association, said the measures would only restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens and not prevent crime.
"Today, we have laid the foundation to ensure that Virginia is a place where we are safe in our workplace, our children are safe at school, we are safe where we choose to worship, and that all of us are safe at home and in our communities,” said Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw in a statement. "Universal background checks, extreme risk protection orders, and a commonsense one gun a month policy are a big step forward to building a Commonwealth that is open and safe to everyone."
“The NRA will continue our work with lawmakers to find solutions that address the root cause of violent crime, rather than punishing honest, hardworking Virginians,” said Catherine Mortensen, NRA spokesperson.
Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) said Democrats were working fast to appease outside interested he claimed helped buy their election win in November, like billionaire presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg.
Democrats said these policies were based in evidence that shows they help slow violent crime, limit suicides by gun, and prevent mass shootings.
During the debate on universal background checks, Sen. Jennifer McClellan referenced a 2017 gun traffic investigation that resulted in 22 arrests.
“They were caught bragging on a wire tape and that they can buy guns like candy,” McClellan said. “We are not responding to Michael Bloomberg or what’s happening in New York, we’re responding to what’s happening in Virginia.”
The four bills passed by the committee represent many of the gun control bills Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring had backed heading into 2020. The Senate Judiciary meeting Monday marked the first votes and debate on gun bills like these this session.
The votes simply move the bills to the Senate floor, where they will be further debated. Similar proposals are on the table in the House of Delegates.
Long lines wrapped for more than a block around entrances to the Pocahontas building prior to the meeting, the first day the building was open to the public following the controversial move by Democrats to ban guns inside that space and the Capitol.
Leaders in the party said the rules change was designed to protect citizens coming to participate in public discourse. Republicans said the “rushed” policy led to long lines, with some staff members waiting for nearly an hour to get through security checkpoints.
Hundreds of activists on both sides of the gun debate waited in those same lines to watch the committee process play out.
John Ring from Henrico arrived around 7 a.m. to stand beside his fellow second amendment supports. Although he admits Democrats have the votes to eventually pass some gun measures, Ring said gun owners will continue their pressure campaign that began with 2nd amendment sanctuary resolutions.
“The gun-free zones have been a problem. They’re making more of them basically doubling down on a bad idea,” Ring said. “An armed populous has leverage, and once it’s gone, you never get it back.”
Ruth Winters lives near Virginia’s Peninsula and organized her local chapter of Mom’s Demand Action following the Parkland, FL, school shooting. The retire pianist said mass shootings are alarming, but Winters thinks everyday gun violence is much more pervasive. She said the bills advanced Monday are a good start.
“It’s not the big mass shooting that are the problem. It’s the everyday city gun violence; the stuff that happens every day. The suicides, the accidental shootings.” Winters said. “I am not foolish enough to think anyone little set of laws is going to solve everything, but I don’t think that’s any reason to not try.”
Monday could be a smaller preview of the crowds expected on the Capitol grounds one week from now. Thousands are expected for the annual “gun lobby day” and police will have a heightened presence in downtown near Capitol Square.