VA gun control laws are being pushed ahead in the Legislature after recent university and basic campus shootings

VA gun control laws are being pushed ahead in the Legislature after recent university and basic campus shootings

A Democrat-led Virginia Senate panel voted Monday to move forward with a series of gun control bills, including legislation to address recent campus shootings at the University of Virginia and a Newport News elementary school.

In an hour-long hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed measures that would tighten Virginia’s gun control regulations and ban most guns from public colleges.

“Make no mistake, these bills that we have presented today will save lives and hopefully offer a layer of comfort or peace of mind to those who are well aware of the gun problem in our society,” said Democratic Sen. Creigh Deeds, a co-chair of the committee said in a statement.

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But the measures face an uncertain outlook in the GOP-controlled home, where leaders have announced they will tackle mass shootings and gun violence this year by improving the mental health system, increasing resources for law enforcement and holding criminals accountable draw.

Democratic Sen. Jennifer Boysko, the main sponsor of the gun storage bill pushed Monday, said she consulted with Republican lawmakers and made changes to what she originally introduced in hopes of finding bipartisan support. Boysko, who represents parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties, called the bill a “sound move to save lives.”

“Everyone in this room cares about kids and safety. And we know that guns are a very serious problem. Just look, last week a middle school student in Henrico County brought a gun into his school, and the week before that we all know about the 6-year-old who brought a gun and shot his teacher,” Boysko said, referring to relates to the Newport News shooting, which police say took place while Abigail Zwerner was teaching her first grade at Richneck Elementary.

Virginia Senator-elect Jennifer Boysko delivers a speech in Richmond, Virginia on January 11, 2019.  A Democrat-led panel of the Virginia Senate has approved a series of gun control bills that will now go to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives and faces an uncertain outlook.

Virginia Senator-elect Jennifer Boysko delivers a speech in Richmond, Virginia on January 11, 2019. A Democrat-led panel of the Virginia Senate has approved a series of gun control bills that will now go to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives and faces an uncertain outlook.
(AP Photo/Steve Helber, file)

Boysko’s amended bill would require anyone who owns a gun in a household with a child to keep both the gun and ammunition in a locked container. Those found to be in violation would be subject to a class four misdemeanor punishable by a fine of no more than $250.

In the case of the Newport News shooting, a lawyer for the child’s family told The Associated Press last week that he believed the gun was in the mother’s closet on a top shelf that was well over seven feet high with a trigger lock, the one key. Attorney James S. Ellenson said the family did not know how the child got hold of the gun.

A number of advocates testified in support of the bill, including gun control organizations and a representative from Roanoke Public Schools.

Opponents said the measure would affect parents’ ability to make the decision about when a child is responsible enough to have access to a gun and could hamper families’ right to self-defense in their own homes, citing Cases where children have used firearms to deter home invasions.

DJ Spiker, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said the language of the bill “failed” because there were workarounds, like YouTube videos, that could help kids figure out how to access supposedly secured guns.

“There is nothing inaccessible to minors,” he said.

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Boysko’s bill passed by a 9-6 party line vote. The measure now goes to the Senate Finance Committee, which is reviewing measures that may affect the budget. If it clears that body, it would then go to the Senate.

The Judiciary Committee also introduced a bill from Deeds, whose district includes Charlottesville, that would ban guns from public college and university buildings except for firearms used for an authorized activity such as ROTC.

Most institutions — UVA being one of them — already ban guns on campus through their own regulatory procedures, Deeds said, but his action would give the bans “legal force.” Noting that authorities who searched the suspected UVA shooter’s on-campus housing found guns there in addition to what was found at the shooting range, he argued his bill would improve public safety.

UVA Police Chief Timothy Longo Sr. testified in support of the measure. He said current bans are enforced through policy violations, which are handled by university administration.

“By making this a criminal prohibition, it opens up the full range of investigative tools and constitutional protections normally provided by the criminal investigation process,” Longo said.

Gun control groups joined Longo in supporting the law, while gun rights groups opposed it, saying colleges should vote for themselves and that students with a concealed carry license should be exempt.

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“This deprives colleges of their discretion, and there may be instances where they want to allow firearms on campus and in independent spaces,” said Patricia Webb, a member of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

Deeds’ bill passed 10-5, receiving a Republican vote from Senate Republican Chairman Tommy Norment.

Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin, didn’t directly address whether the governor opposes the measures, but said in a statement, “Virginia has some of the toughest gun laws in America.” She said the governor is supportive various Republican-sponsored efforts to increase penalties for gun crimes and noted his budget efforts to increase funding for mental health services.

The Judiciary Committee also introduced a number of other bills, including measures that would ban the carrying of certain semi-automatic weapons in public areas and restrict the purchase or sale of “assault firearms” made after July 1, 2023.

The panel voted against a bill by Republican Senator Mark Obenshain that would have curtailed a 2020 law that would have allowed communities to create gun-free zones. Obenshain argued the law directly contradicted a US Supreme Court ruling last year.

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