state capitol
The Washington statue outside the State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

RICHMOND – Just months after two mass shootings shook Virginia in a matter of days, a Democratic-controlled Senate committee on Monday passed a slate of gun bills aimed at keeping dangerous firearms out of the hands of people who could potentially inflict harm on others.

By a 9-6 party line vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee backed legislation that would ban the new sale and possession of assault weapons manufactured after July 1, 2023. Sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, Senate Bill 1382 would also raise the age to buy an assault weapon manufactured before the bill’s effective date from 18 to 21.

Similar legislation by Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, was rolled into Deeds’ proposal, as was a measure sponsored by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke. Edwards co-chairs the committee with Deeds. Morrissey is a member. 

By the same party-line vote, the panel also voted in favor of legislation that would prohibit the carrying of certain semi-automatic center-fire rifles, pistols and shotguns in most public places. Under current law, the current prohibition applies to a narrower range of firearms, only in certain localities, and only when such firearms are loaded. 

The committee further backed a proposal making a Class 1 misdemeanor – punishable as a Class 4 felony for a second or subsequent offense – for anyone to knowingly sell, offer to sell, transfer, or purchase an unfinished frame or receiver, referring to a weapon that has not yet reached a stage of manufacture that meets the definition of “firearm frame” or “receiver” according to the Gun Control Act (GCA). Exceptions apply for serial-stamped firearms sold by importers, dealers or manufacturers.

But it was Deeds’ bill that had caused the most commotion among gun rights advocates Monday, as it is based on a similar legal framework as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which was a part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which expired in 2004. 

Deeds said in a news conference earlier this month that his proposal was designed to “slow the spread of these firearms on the street,” and prevent the sale of firearms that are already on the street to those people who are under 21. “I know this bill is not perfect, but I know it’ll also save lives,” Deeds said.

Morrissey, now the bill’s co-chief patron after the merging of his measure, cited statistics showing an increase in mass shootings in the United States in recent years. “From 610 a year to 648 a year to 692 a year. The weapons of choice – the AK-47 and the AR-15,” Morrissey said, adding that last year, there was just one mass shooting in the United Kingdom and one in Australia.

In Virginia, 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. 

“There are people that will oppose this bill, and they are very law-abiding, good, decent people,”  Morrissey said. “I hope there’s an eye to folks realizing that if we don’t do something, these mass shootings will continue unabated. That’s the goal, to stop the carnage in the commonwealth of Virginia, and I think this bill helps us towards that end.”

Andrew Goddard with the Virginia Center for Public Safety, a nonprofit grassroots organization dedicated to the reduction of gun violence, said that the legislation “is not about what color guns are,” but about what firearms can do. 

“It would be unconstitutional if it was a bill to prevent anybody from carrying any firearm for self-defense. But this is a bill to limit their ability to kill a larger number of people while defending themselves or whatever they want to call it when they go into a nightclub,” Goddard said, referring to a shooting Sunday evening at a nightclub in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that left a dozen people injured

Goddard’s words were echoed by Liddy Ballard, state policy manager with the nonprofit group Brady. 

“Assault weapons are firearms designed for offensive attack, not self-defense, and which are accordingly intended to injure and kill large numbers of people quickly and efficiently,” Ballard said. “These weapons do not belong in places of peace, and the availability of these weapons by civilians has created a uniquely American problem, and it’s time to put this to an end.”

Ballard cited data showing that since the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired almost 20 years ago, “the U.S. experienced a 183% increase in massacres and a 239% increase in fatalities.”

Andy Parker, the father of slain TV reporter Alison Parker who became a nationally known gun control advocate in the aftermath of his daughter’s murder, didn’t mince his words before the committee.

“Weapons of war have no place in this country, and I would say that for those who oppose this bill, it’s cowardly and you’re on the wrong side of history,” Parker said.

But Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, countered that states trying to ban assault weapons were treading on uncertain legal territory.

“California had such a ban, it was upheld by the lower courts, and so did Maryland. It went to the Supreme Court, which accepted the case and sent them back to the states to reconsider in light of the Bruen decision,” Van Cleave said, referring to a Supreme Court ruling which found that carrying a firearm in public was a constitutional right under the Second Amendment. 

“This idea that this is constitutional is just not there,” Van Cleave said of Deeds’ bill. “Also, the Second Amendment allows you the right to a bearable weapon of war.”

And Patrica Webb, a Virginia firearms dealer and collector, said that the legislation would “severely damage” her business. “I sell guns online, this bill would prohibit me from selling half or more of what I currently sell to anybody in any state,” Webb said.

The committee referred the Democratic gun proposals to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, where it will undergo a fiscal review before heading to the Senate floor. But the proposals will face an uphill battle in the House of Delegates, where Republicans hold a 52-48 majority. 

Markus Schmidt

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