Scenes from the gun rights rally at the State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.
Scenes from the gun rights rally at the State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

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RICHMOND – When gun rights enthusiasts Theresa Davis and Phil Minnich made the three-hour road trip from Martinsville to Richmond’s Capitol Square on Monday, they had one message they wanted lawmakers to hear. 

“Virginia needs to be a constitutional carry state,” Davis said, referring to legislation that wouldn’t require gun owners to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon. “Honestly, as a woman I worry a lot less about walking down the street and being attacked, kidnapped or trafficked if I got a gun on my hip,” Davis said. “Otherwise, what I feel like the government is trying to do is make me a victim.” 

Phil Minnich and Theresa Davis of Martinsville. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

Davis and Minnich were among several hundred Second Amendment supporters who gathered around the capitol’s historic Bell Tower on the legislature’s traditional Lobby Day to protest a slate of new gun-safety measures proposed by Democrats after several recent mass shootings shocked the commonwealth. 

Lori Haas, advocacy manager with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, said that firearms are deadly weapons that cause “immeasurable pain and suffering to families” across the commonwealth. 

“Virginia, sadly, is home to far too many of those mass shootings,” said Haas, who became a gun safety advocate after her daughter, Emily, ​​was ​​grazed twice in the head during the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. “It’s far past time that Virginia regulates these weapons of war. Access to firearms by children is deadly. We lock up poisons, alcohol, prescription drugs, why not firearms?” 

The most recent streak of gun violence began on Nov. 13, when a student at the University of Virginia shot and killed three football players. Only 10 days later, an employee at a Chesapeake Walmart killed six co-workers before turning the gun on himself. 

In response to these tragedies, Democrats have vowed to prohibit the sales of large-capacity magazines in Virginia, raise the age to purchase an assault weapon to 21 and make it more difficult for people who shouldn’t have a gun to get access, among several other proposals.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville.

In the Senate, Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, sponsored what may be considered this year’s key gun safety measure. His Senate Bill 1382 would ban the new sale and possession of assault weapons manufactured after July 1, 2023. It would also raise the age to buy an assault weapon manufactured before the bill’s effective date from 18 to 21.

Deeds, who faces a primary challenge from Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, in a redrawn 11th State Senate district this year, said in a news conference Friday that his proposal is based on the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, which expired in 2004.

“A lot of people will not be pleased, but it’s designed to slow the spread of these firearms on the street, it prevents the sale of firearms that are already on the street to those people who are under 21,” Deeds said. “I know this bill is not perfect, but I know it’ll also save lives.”

While Deeds’ proposal will likely clear the Senate, where Democrats hold a 22-18 majority, it is unlikely to survive in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, where Del. Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax, filed a similar proposal that seeks to outright ban the sale of assault weapons and high capacity magazines. 

Helmer, an Army veteran, said that his bill would assure that weapons similar to those he carried in Iraq and Afghanistan, “weapons designed with one purpose – to put sustained and aimed fire on an enemy and kill him,” would not be available for sale in Virginia. 

Helmer’s measure would also ban high capacity magazines, “because research shows they lead to five times as many deaths in mass shootings and were instrumental in the terrible death tolls in Virginia Beach, Virginia Tech and other mass shootings in the commonwealth,” he said. “Time and again moderate Republicans and extremists have stood in the way of common sense gun violence prevention measures. Today is the time for that to change.”

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, said in a news conference by House Democratic leadership Monday that in 2020, there were 1,174 firearm-related deaths in Virginia – which is more than three people dying every day due to a firearm-related injury. 

“About 65 percent of those deaths are suicides, and about four out of 10 are homicides,” Hope said. “We talk about the mass shootings, but this is happening every single day in our homes and communities. Families in Virginia are suffering and we have to do something about it.”

Hope also cited a study by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions showing that in 2019, Petersburg with 42 per 100,000 had the highest rate of gun-related deaths of all localities in Virginia, followed by Dickenson County (30 per 100,000) and Danville (28 per 100,000). 

“This is happening in urban areas and rural areas all over the commonwealth,” Hope said. “We are killing our children, our neighbors, our family members, and they are dying in our streets and our homes.”

But even in light of the recent mass shootings, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has shown no indication that he would be willing to support gun control measures. Instead, he called for legislation to bolster the state’s mental health resources. 

Youngkin also sidestepped a question from a reporter asking whether he would consider supporting legislation that would be aimed at restricting access to dangerous weapons and firearms. “When the facts come in at the end of all the investigations, then we’ll have time to come together and talk about what actions we can take,” Youngkin said at a Thanksgiving event. 

And at his first State of the Commonwealth speech last week, the governor once again linked the uptick in gun violence to mental health, not lax gun laws. 

“Virginia, like the country, is experiencing a behavioral health crisis. And our behavioral health system is overwhelmed, grappling with a level of mental health and substance use issues never seen before – all too often resulting in violence, suicide and murder,” Youngkin said. 

Republicans also doubt that the Democratic proposals would be effective in curtailing gun violence in the first place.

“I absolutely hate school shootings,” Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, said on the House floor Monday. But Anderson – an attorney and gun shop owner – also said that none of the proposals that Democrats have rolled out would have prevented incidents like last week’s shooting in Newport News, where a 6-year-old boy was taken into police custody after he fired a handgun at a teacher at Richneck Elementary School.  

“We can have a law that says every gun owner should secure their weapon, and their child would have had access to it, but what gun law would have prevented that?” Anderson said. “And that’s the problem with gun laws, they require compliance by the individual that chooses whether or not to obey the law.”

Anderson added that legislation like the one he proposed last year that would have required anybody entering a school building to be screened with a handheld metal detector would have stopped the recent Newport News shooting. “Not a gun law, but a reasonable method to protect children in schools. But nobody had an appetite for that,” Anderson said. 

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg. Courtesy of Wendell Walker.

And Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, flat out stated that all Democratic gun safety proposals would be non-starters this session. 

“There hasn’t been any discussion within our Republican caucus in terms of gun bills,” Walker said. “I know that there are some, but the bottom line is we have a constitutional right and we want to be able to express that.”

The fear of guns has gotten out of control, Walker said during a brief interview at Monday’s gun rights rally. “It’s almost unreasonable that when something happens, you gotta blame the gun. We don’t need to have a knee-jerk reaction every time there is a crime committed. But that’s what’s going on, that’s the atmosphere.”

Instead of filing more gun safety measures, current criminal laws should simply be enforced, Walker said. “Let’s clean up the crime, fentanyl and other issues in the streets. We don’t need to create more laws.”

However, some of Walker’s Republican colleagues want to do just that – but in order to expand, not limit gun rights. 

Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, has filed a proposal that would eliminate the requirement for a concealed handgun permit, allowing anyone to carry a concealed handgun who is “otherwise eligible” to obtain such permit. 

Another March proposal would prohibit an owner of a property from prohibiting a person who has a valid concealed handgun permit from storing a firearm or other weapon in a motor vehicle if the latter is located in a parking lot, traffic circle or other means of vehicular ingress or egress to such private property that is open to the public.

March also renewed her effort to repeal Virginia’s so-called red flag law, which allows authorities to take guns away from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Over strong opposition from gun rights advocates, the Virginia General Assembly had passed its own version of the legislation in 2020 after Democrats gained the majority in both chambers.

Although a Republican-controlled House panel approved March’s measure last year – and is likely to do so again in the coming weeks – the Democratic majority of a Senate panel defeated the proposal just a few weeks later.

For Davis and Minnich, the Second Amendment advocates from Martinsville, expanding – and not limiting – gun rights should be the focus of the legislature, particularly adding Virginia to the list of states that allow concealed carry without a permit. “You’re allowed to carry a gun on your hip here, but if you do that, all you do is you make yourself a target,” Minnich said.

Davis said that she believes that once Democrats are successful banning assault weapons they wouldn’t stop there. “They want to take it all away, I don’t believe it one bit that they don’t,” she said. “They can come take mine, but they’ll have to take me to jail.” 

Scenes from the gun rights rally at the State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.
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Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.