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Virginia Senate panel puts off assault weapons ban until next year in setback for Northam

RICHMOND — Legislation to ban assault weapons under an expanded definition won’t advance out of the General Assembly this year, a win for gun rights advocates and a setback for Gov. Ralph Northam’s gun control agenda.

Four Democrats joined Republicans to defeat the measure Monday in the Senate Judiciary Committee — a notable show of disunity in a party that emphasized gun control during its successful electoral bid for control of the legislature.

Democratic Sens. R. Creigh Deeds of Bath County, John Edwards of Roanoke, Chap Petersen of Fairfax City and Scott Surovell of Fairfax County voted to punt on the measure.

HB 961, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, would have banned possession of magazines that can hold more than 12 rounds and the sale of some types of semiautomatic rifles and pistols.

The proposal sparked outrage among gun rights activists. The measure was a focus of a rally that drew an estimated 22,000 gun rights supporters to Richmond on Jan. 20.

Dozens of activists flooded the committee room and nearby hallways on Monday, erupting in cheer when it became clear the assault weapons ban would not pass.

“HB 961 went down by a 10 to 5 vote!” Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, tweeted after the vote. “Everybody’s hard work, Lobby Day, and sanctuary movement paid off!,” he wrote. He was referring to the movement in which more than 100 Virginia counties, cities and towns pledged not to enforce gun laws they consider unconstitutional. Attorney General Mark Herring said the resolutions have no legal effect.

The Northam administration and gun control advocates expressed disapproval of the panel’s vote, arguing that the firearms that the measure would ban are weapons of war that don’t belong in the hands of everyday citizens.

“With the last election, many had thought that the antiquated political thinking around guns was over — but today a few Democratic senators showed that they are still stuck in the past,” said Lori Haas, the state director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Her daughter was injured in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

The measure presented to lawmakers on Monday was amended to include weaker penalties than the version Levine initially introduced. It also allowed current owners of would-be restricted firearms to keep them, banning only sales, transfers and imports.

The changes weren’t enough to convince some Democrats on the committee. After little debate among lawmakers, the panel voted to kick the bill to next year’s session, calling for a study of the legislation by the Virginia State Crime Commission.

“The votes in the Senate have not existed to pass the bill since we gaveled in” Jan. 8, “and the bill has numerous issues that needed to be refined,” Surovell said in a statement posted to Facebook defending his vote.

He said that increasing regulation of assault rifles is “a concept which I fully support.”

Deeds, Edwards and Petersen could not be immediately reached for comment.

Republicans were unified in opposing the bill, joined by a few dozen gun rights advocates who flooded the committee room to speak against the measure.

The measure would have banned the import, sale and transfer of a semiautomatic rifle or pistol with a pistol grip, a second hand grip, a silencer or a folding stock, among other characteristics — subject to a Class 6 felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

It would have also banned possession of magazines that can hold more than 12 rounds of ammunition, subject to a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. The sale of such magazines would be subject to a Class 6 felony.

Van Cleave said the bill would not pass judicial muster because it disarms Virginians. D.J. Spiker, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said the bill would not allow Virginians to travel in and out of the state with some of their firearms without risking a felony conviction.

Patricia Webb, who said she holds a federal license to sell firearms, said the bill would force the closure of thousands of businesses.

“It would ban the vast majority of items that we sell. Most of the features listed as ‘assault’ features are actually safety features,” she told the panel.

The House had cleared the measure last week on a 51-48 vote, mostly along party lines. In that chamber, four of 55 Democrats broke with their party to oppose the ban: Dels. Lee Carter of Manassas, Steve Heretick of Portsmouth and Roslyn Tyler of Sussex County voted against the bill; Kelly Convirs-Fowler of Virginia Beach did not cast a vote, though she was in the chamber.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn criticized the Senate panel’s vote in a statement Monday.

“The Democratic platform last fall was very clear,” Filler-Corn said. “The [House] delivered on our promise to take action to keep those weapons off our streets. To call today’s vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee a disappointment would be an understatement.”

Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for the Northam administration, said in a statement: “While the governor is disappointed in today’s vote, he fully expects the crime commission to give this measure the detailed review that senators called for. We will be back next year.”

The Northam administration, she said, remains hopeful about the seven other measures in its gun control package as it moves through the legislature. Northam’s gun control package has measures to:

» ban assault weapons;

» raise penalties for “recklessly” exposing minors to guns;

» require reporting of lost or stolen firearms;

» ban possession of firearms by people subject to restraining orders;

» expand local control over firearm ordinances;

» require universal background checks;

» limit handgun purchases to one a month; and

» give courts the ability to temporarily remove firearms from people in crisis.

The House already cleared the eight measures the administration is pitching. The package was not as successful in the Senate, where just three of the eight measures passed without major amendments and two advanced with changes the House did not adopt. The House versions of the seven remaining bills are still alive in the Senate, but several face uphill battles.

The chambers will have to work out differences on bills that cleared the chambers in the coming weeks ahead of the session’s scheduled March 7 adjournment.


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