RICHMOND, Va. -- Gun control and gun-rights proponents rallied Monday at the Virginia Capitol during an annual day of advocacy, as lawmakers from both parties offered a tempered assessment about what's possible on the issue during this year's legislative session.
Some Republicans and allied gun-rights groups hope to roll back measures enacted in recent years when Democrats were in full control of state government, including a red flag law and a measure that allowed local governments to establish some gun-free zones. Many Democrats, responding to a series of recent high-profile school and mass shootings, have proposed a range of bills they say will improve safety, including gun-storage measures and various limits on assault-style weapons.
But with the GOP now controlling the House of Delegates and Democrats leading the Senate, some members of both parties openly acknowledge that the prospect of major legislation reaching Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's desk this year is unlikely.
“You’re not going to see repeals of all of the laws that have offended us that the Democrats passed in 2020 and 2021, because while we can get them out of our House, they will die in the Senate. But you will see us standing up and stopping more progressive gun control," said GOP Del. Tim Anderson, a gun shop owner, said during a rally organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights group.
Attendance at the event was between 150 to 200, according to Capitol police. It was far lighter than in 2020 when the promise of action by Democrats on gun-control legislation drew tens of thousands of gun-rights activists from around the country.
Among those participating Monday were members of a Black Lives Matter group from Hampton Roads and others openly carrying assault-style weapons.
Speakers called Virginia's red flag law an unconstitutional intrusion and made the case that the local control law has created a problematic patchwork of regulations for law-abiding gun owners.
“I keep hearing people say we need gun control, gun control. Well, criminals don’t care about the law,” said Del. John McGuire, one of several speakers who reminded attendees that party control of both chambers will be decided in the fall, when each legislative seat will be on the ballot.
In the afternoon, a crowd of gun-control activists — slightly smaller than the first rally, according to Capitol police — rallied at the same spot.
Democratic lawmakers who spoke argued that past years' reforms, including the red flag law, are saving lives.
House Minority Leader Del. Don Scott invoked the signs some attendees were holding in honor of recent shooting victims — incidents that have ranged from a campus shooting at the University of Virginia that killed three football players to a school shooting earlier this month in Newport News in which police said a 6-year-old shot and wounded a teacher.
“We see you. We feel you,” he said.
Monday morning, Senate lawmakers briefly took up two gun-related measures, though they ultimately took no substantive action on either.
One, from GOP Sen. Mark Obenshain, would roll back the types of areas where local governments can restrict firearms. The other, from Democratic Sen. David Marsden, would tighten the penalties for firearms left unsecured in vehicles under certain conditions. Both measures were referred to different committees for further consideration.
As the session progresses, lawmakers will consider a range of bills aimed at limiting the sale of assault weapons or increasing the minimum age to buy such a weapon. Lawmakers considered but ultimately did not pass an assault weapons ban in 2020.
Senate Democrats have also introduced a gun storage bill that would require anyone who owns a gun in a home where a minor is present to store the gun unloaded and in a locked container or cabinet, and to store all ammunition in a separate locked container.
Del. Tony Wilt, who chairs the House committee that will hear most gun bills, said he would be willing to hear “almost anything” put forward but that Republicans would be focused on “holding criminals responsible."
Several Republican lawmakers have introduced measures that would tighten the penalties for certain gun-related crimes.
Youngkin supports two of those bills, according to Macaulay Porter, his spokeswoman.
A self-described gun owner and National Rifle Association member, the governor pledged after a November mass shooting in a Chesapeake Walmart to make bolstering the state's mental health system a focus of this year's session. The governor, who was participating in a service project and did not attend Monday's gun-rights rally, also hopes to boost funding to help recruit law enforcement officers, Porter said.
Beyond gun issues, a wide range of topics drew interest groups to the Capitol Monday. Each year, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday offers a chance for citizens to meet with their legislators in what’s informally known as lobby day.
LGBTQ advocates rallied in protest of a series of bills under consideration that would restrain gender-affirming care or restrict the participation of transgender students in athletics. The Virginia Education Association held an event focused on school funding, and a group opposing vaccine mandates gathered in the afternoon.
The legislative session began Wednesday and runs through late February.