RICHMOND — The National Rifle Association and hundreds of Second Amendment supporters flocked Monday to the State Capitol, voicing their opposition to proposed gun control bills in the Democrat controlled General Assembly.
Gun rights advocates, many donning blue T-shirts, filled legislative offices to speak directly with lawmakers. A group of over 25 squared off outside the Capitol with Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, directly venting their frustration over the gun bills.
Several attendants asked Fairfax why Democrats were pushing legislation that would potentially criminalize thousands of Virginians who had done nothing wrong.
Fairfax said that he and the governor are reaching out to all Virginians and want to create “an open dialogue” between lawmakers and citizens to better address the concerns across the commonwealth.
Gun rights advocates expressed opposition to Senate Bill 16, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, which would have prohibited the sale and transport of assault firearms and certain types of firearm magazines.
Saslaw withdrew the legislation Monday. However, House Bill 961, introduced by Del. Mark Levine D- Alexandria, is seen by many Second Amendment supporters as worse than Saslaw’s original bill. Levine’s bill would prohibit the sale and transport of assault firearms, certain firearm magazines, silencers and trigger activators, as well as outlines penalties.
Critics say the bill expands what constitutes an “assault firearm.” Opponents say the bill would ban the usage of almost all common rifles, even though rifles have been rarely used in crimes committed in the commonwealth.
Sam Edwards, a Virginia resident and NRA supporter, said that in 2018, fewer murders were committed by “long guns of any kind” than were committed by handguns. He cited a 2018 report by the FBI breaking down weapons used by type in crimes by state. The data from that report show eight murders were committed with rifles, five by shotguns, 141 by handguns and 143 by “firearms type unknown.”
“This bill will criminalize almost 3 million Virginia gun owners. It’s not about stopping crime, it’s all about control,” Edwards said.
Levine’s bill includes language that any person who legally owns an assault firearm, large-capacity firearm magazine, silencer, or trigger activator on July 1, 2020, may retain possession until Jan. 1, 2021, unless they have the required permitting from state police allowing them to keep it after that date.
Despite Second Amendment supporters’ efforts to reach lawmakers, four gun control bills reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, all on 9-5 party line votes.
The bills that reported out of committee include SB 70, which requires a universal background check when people sell firearms. SB 69 limits handgun purchases to one a month, while SB 35 allows localities to ban firearms in a public space during a permitted event. SB 240 allows authorities to take away the firearms of someone deemed to be a threat to themselves or others, a measure known as a red flag law.
A small local contingent with the national group Moms Demand Action showed up in support of stricter gun-control legislation.
“It used to be that if you talked about gun rights, then you wouldn’t get elected, well now it was the top polling issues for voters leaving the polls,” said Karen Vaught a volunteer with Moms Demand Action. “They voted for gun sense, and they got gun sense.”
Some Second Amendment supporters voiced their displeasure with the NRA, citing the perceived silence from the organization in the aftermath of the 2019 election, even though it is headquartered in Fairfax.
“There’s hardly been a peep out of the NRA I’ve been shocked by their lack of response,” said Ed Sugg of Loudoun County. “Everyone here, this is all grassroots driven, and there’s a local organization the VCDL [Virginia Citizens Defense League] that has been 50 times more active than the NRA.”
The NRA responded to some of these claims during a press conference that involved members of the Virginia House Republican Caucus and D.J. Spiker, the Virginia director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.
“I would disagree that we have been silent I think the better word would be strategic,” said Spiker. “We have behind the scenes meetings going on, we’re meeting with our members and engaging with our members.”
Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, said he was happy to see so many citizens show support for gun rights and to oppose Democratic-sponsored legislation.
“For years all we were told was that nobody wants to take your guns, all anybody wanted was some common sense regulations,” Freitas said, “And then the moment they took control, we see gun confiscation bills, we see the criminalization of otherwise law abiding citizens who haven’t hurt anybody.”
Freitas said he is frustrated to see what is going on with the Democratic majority, and the issue isn’t just about guns but civil liberties.
“It’s been no surprise that you have this grassroots response to all of this,” he said.