Virginia Republicans blocked law to ban sales of gun parts used in mass shooting

National Rifle Association has ‘stranglehold’ on party, bill’s sponsor alleges

Robert McCartney
Sunday 02 June 2019 17:18 BST
Police rush people out of building following shooting at Virginia Beach

A Virginia bill designed to ban sales of large capacity gun magazines similar to those used by the Virginia Beach shooting suspect died in committee in January on a party-line vote.

The fate of the legislation, known as SB 1748, was so widely expected that the outcome drew virtually no public attention.

For more than 20 years, Republicans and a few rural Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly have killed almost every measure aimed at restricting gun ownership.

The Republicans blocked a major push for gun control after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, where 33 people died.

They chose instead to respond to that shooting by joining Democrats to enact mental-health reforms.

Although there are signs that public opinion has been shifting in favour of gun control in Virginia, the state has a history of support for gun rights, symbolised by the location in Fairfax of the headquarters of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Each year, Democrats propose multiple gun-control measures, such as strengthening background checks, limiting handgun purchases to one per month and allowing localities to regulate guns in public buildings.

They call these “common-sense” measures to save lives.

Each year, Republican majorities in one or both chambers of the legislature vote them down, usually in committee. Republican legislators say their goal is never to infringe on people’s second amendment rights.

“There’s been no tragedy that has got the [Republican] majority to think twice and consider reasonable efforts,” said Adam Ebbin, a Democrat from Alexandria, who sponsored SB 1748 and is co-chair of the group Gun Violence Prevention Caucus.

A big reason, he said, is the political influence of gun rights organisations.

“Part of the problem is that the [Virginia] Citizens Defence League and the NRA have a stranglehold on the votes of the Republicans,” Mr Ebbin said.

League president Philip Van Cleave, whose organisation prides itself on taking stronger positions than the NRA, defended his group’s record.

“Gun control does not save lives. It endangers innocent life by making it harder for good people to defend themselves,” Mr Van Cleave said in an email. “The Republican leadership understands that basic truth.”

Mr Van Cleave said his group opposes all magazine restrictions, such as the 10-round limit proposed by Mr Ebbin’s bill. “DC has those 10-round restrictions and eight times the murder rate of northern Virginia, which has no limits on magazine size,” he said.

The NRA did not respond to requests for comment. It typically maintains a low profile in the days immediately after a highly publicised shooting incident.

After the Virginia Tech slayings, then the worst mass shooting by an individual in US history, gun-control advocates led by then-governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat and now a US senator, pushed hard to change some laws.

The centrepiece of his package was a proposal to require gun sellers to conduct background checks on all buyers at gun shows.

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Instead, with Republican support, the legislature lowered the standard under which a mentally ill person can be forced into treatment, and expanded the criteria under which a mentally ill person can be barred from buying or owning guns.

It also boosted funding by $42m (£33m) for community-based mental health treatment.

The response disappointed gun-control advocates, including relatives and friends of Virginia Tech victims, who said people diagnosed with mental illness are less likely than others to commit violence with a firearm.

“The gun lobby likes to blame the gun violence problem on persons with mental illness, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Lori Haas, state director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, whose daughter was shot and injured at Virginia Tech, said. “While resources are necessary to increase services, and warranted for those state agencies and private organisations providing services, doing so is not going to stop the gun violence problem in Virginia,” Ms Haas said.

Virginia Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment Jr, a Republican from James City, said it was too soon after the Virginia Beach shootings to talk politics.

“It is offensive, disrespectful, and tasteless that anyone – including Senator Ebbin and Ms Haas – would use a tragedy like this to promote a political agenda less than 24 hours after families and an entire community have suffered a loss of this magnitude,” Mr Norment said in an email.

Virginia Beach police said their officers shot and killed the suspected shooter after a lengthy gun battle in which he used two .45-caliber semi-automatic handguns that had been purchased legally.

Along with the weapons at the scene, investigators found a sound suppressor and extended magazines, which contain more than the standard number of rounds. Police have not identified a motive for the shooting.

Mr Ebbin’s bill would have prohibited any person from importing, selling, bartering or transferring a firearms magazine designed to hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Eight Republicans voted it down, with six Democrats in favour, in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee on 28 January.

NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch previously said journalists 'need to be curb-stomped'

Police have not said how many rounds were contained by the Virginia Beach shooter’s extended magazines.

Internet advertisements for extended magazines for .45 semi-automatic handguns list standard magazines as holding seven to 15 rounds, and extended ones as holding 15 to 33 rounds.

Another bill that died in the Virginia General Assembly in January would have allowed localities such as Virginia Beach to ban firearms from government buildings such as the one where the Friday shootings took place.

Virginia Beach Council member Guy King Tower said after the shootings that it was regrettable that the city needed state approval to take such actions.

Democratic governors have used executive powers at times to strengthen gun restrictions. In 2015, then-governor Terry McAuliffe ordered a ban on guns in state office buildings.

The biggest change in gun laws in Virginia over recent years has been one that relaxed controls. In 2012, the then-governor Bob McDonnell signed a bill repealing the state’s one-per-month limit on handgun purchases.

Democrats have repeatedly sought to restore the limit, but without success.

New York and other states have complained that the change has contributed to Virginia’s status as a major centre of gun trafficking on the East Coast.

Gun control advocates believe public sentiment is moving their way.

They said they hit a major milestone in the 2017 elections by turning out as many of their supporters as their opponents did. Democrats won all of the state’s top three elective offices that year: for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Some of those Democrats continued their efforts on Saturday.

Governor Ralph Northam, in an interview with NPR, said he would continue to push lawmakers to pass gun safety legislation.

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Mr Northam noted that the Republican-controlled General Assembly killed gun-related bills he had proposed earlier this year as well as the year before.

Earlier in the day, Virginia attorney general Mark Herring told MSNBC that it was time to enact red-flag legislation, background checks and other gun regulations.

So far, it has not translated into success in the legislature. Both parties are expected to use gun control as an issue to mobilise their bases in the November elections, when all seats in the General Assembly will be up for grabs.

At present, Republicans hold two-seat majorities in both the House and Senate. Based on experience, Democrats would have to win control of both chambers to change the status quo.

The Washington Post

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