VA gun control bills advance in Legislature after recent shootings at university, elementary campus

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

In an hours-long hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee signed off on measures that would tighten Virginia’s gun storage regulations and ban most guns from public college campuses.

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

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However, the measures face uncertain prospects in the GOP-controlled House, where leaders have said they will address mass shootings and gun violence this year by improving the mental health care system, boosting funding for law enforcement and holding criminals accountable.

Democratic Sen. Jennifer Boysko, the lead sponsor of the gun storage bill that advanced Monday, said she had consulted with Republican lawmakers and made changes to what she initially introduced in the hopes of finding bipartisan support. Boysko, who represents parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties, called the bill a “commonsense measure to save lives.”

“Everybody in this room cares about children and safety. And we know that guns are presenting a very serious problem. Just look at last week, a middle school student in Henrico County brought a handgun to 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, referencing the Newport News shooting, which police have said occurred as Abigail Zwerner was teaching her first grade class at Richneck Elementary.

Virginia state Sen.-elect Jennifer Boysko delivers an address in Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 11, 2019. A Democrat-led Virginia Senate panel has approved a range of gun control bills which will now head to the GOP-controlled House where it faces uncertain prospects.
(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Boysko’s amended bill would require that anyone possessing a gun in a residence with a child must keep both the firearm and any ammunition for it in a locked container. Those found in violation would be subject to a class four misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of not more than $250.

In the case of the Newport News shooting, an attorney for the family of the child told The Associated Press last week that his understanding was the gun was in the mother’s closet on a top shelf well over six feet high with a trigger lock that requires a key. Attorney James S. Ellenson said the family doesn’t know how the child may have gotten access to the weapon.

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

Opponents said the measure would infringe on parents’ ability to make the decision about when a child is responsible enough to access a gun and could hinder families’ right to self defense inside their own home, citing cases in which children with firearms have deterred home invasions.

D.J. Spiker, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said the language of the bill doesn’t “pass muster” because there are workarounds like YouTube videos that could help kids figure out how to access ostensibly secured guns.

“There’s no such thing as inaccessible to a minor,” he said.

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Boysko’s bill advanced on a 9-6 party-line vote. The measure now heads to the Senate finance committee, which reviews measures that may have budgetary impacts. If it clears that panel, it would then go to the Senate floor.

The judiciary committee also advanced a bill from Deeds, whose district includes Charlottesville, that would prohibit guns from public college and university buildings, with an exception for firearms used for an authorized activity like ROTC.

Most institutions — UVA is among them — already prohibit guns on campus through their own regulatory processes, Deeds said, but his measure would give the bans the “force of law.” He noted that authorities who searched the on-campus housing of the UVA shooting suspect found guns there in addition to what was recovered at the shooting scene and 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 dealt with by university administrators.

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

Gun control groups joined Longo in backing the bill while gun rights groups opposed it, saying colleges should choose for themselves and that students with a concealed carry licenses should be exempted.

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“This takes discretion away from the colleges, and there may be instances where they do want to allow firearms on campus and independent rooms,” said Patricia Webb, a member of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

Deeds’ bill passed 10-5, picking up one Republican vote from Senate Republican Leader Tommy Norment.

Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin, did not directly address whether the governor opposes the measures, but she said in a statement, “Virginia has some of the toughest gun laws in America.” She said the governor does support various Republican-sponsored efforts to toughen penalties for gun crimes and noted his budget effort to boost funding for mental health services.

The judiciary committee also advanced a range 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 down a bill from Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain that would have limited a 2020 law allowing localities some ability to create gun-free zones. Obenshain argued the law is in direct conflict with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year.