Guns trigger debate at General Assembly

Capital News Service

RICHMOND - In Virginia, as in most states, you can get a gun without ever having fired one.

A push for new gun laws was one of the hot topics of the General Assembly's 2015 session. Both the gun lobby and gun control advocates sought legislation regarding firearms.

Second Amendment groups wanted to loosen the laws to allow, for example, concealed handgun permit holders to carry loaded shotguns or rifles in their vehicles. Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed that bill.

Gun control groups wanted to restrict access to firearms. They backed bills to prohibit letting children under 5 fire a gun, and to reinstate Virginia's prohibition on buying more than one handgun a month. Those bills died in a legislative subcommittee on unrecorded votes.

The Virginia Catholic Conference opposed a bill that would have permitted concealed carry of guns on school property, which was defeated, and supported a bill that would have closed the gun show loophole.

To gun control advocates, the issue is all about safety: In recent years, more Virginians have died from guns than from car accidents.

In 2013, there were 855 gun-related deaths in Virginia, according to a Capital News Service analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The deaths included 10 accidents, 233 assaults and 601 suicides (with the remainder undetermined).

That same year, 741 Virginians died in motor vehicle accidents.

That trend holds true nationally as well. According to CDC data, 33,168 people died from gun-related incidents in 2013; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 32,719 deaths due to motor vehicle accidents that year.

The governor's gun agenda

Against the backdrop of such statistics, McAuliffe sought to address the issue of guns in 2015.

In his State of the Commonwealth Address in January, the governor proposed "several common-sense bills aimed at keeping Virginians safe from gun violence without infringing on the rights of responsible, law abiding citizens."

McAuliffe, a gun owner himself, wanted to close the so-called "gun show loophole." Currently, Virginia does not require background checks on people buying firearms from private dealers at such events.

McAuliffe also said he wanted to prevent "violent criminals and domestic abusers from obtaining firearms" and revoke the concealed carry permits of people behind on child support payments. Additionally, McAuliffe called for reinstating a state law allowing Virginians to purchase only one handgun per month - a limit the governor said would curb gun trafficking to other states.

"Even one Virginian's precious life is too high a price to pay for our inability to reach a reasonable compromise on gun safety," McAuliffe told the General Assembly.

Democratic lawmakers tried to accomplish McAuliffe's goals, but the close of the legislative session left both the gun lobby and gun control advocates at a standstill. Neither side made any significant strides to advance its agenda or change the way Virginia deals with guns.

Despite the stalemate, the gun lobby and gun control advocates are optimistic about the future of gun laws in Virginia.

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense

Gena Reeder heads the Virginia chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which was founded after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

Reeder and the organization have three objectives: require universal background checks on all gun sales to avoid guns getting into the hands of criminals; prevent children from getting hold of unsecured firearms; And put what the group sees as reasonable limits on where and how guns are used in public settings.

Turning those objectives into laws has been difficult because the gun lobby has had several decades of a head start when it comes to politics and influence, Reeder said. Organizations like Moms Demand Action are trying to catch up.

Reeder said she believes there is a vocal minority of gun owners who are afraid that any restrictions will lead to a loss of their right to bear arms - something she said will never happen.

"Any kind of law that restricts where and how you can carry your gun, they feel like, is a great imposition to law-abiding gun owners," Reeder said.

Moms Demand Action is seeking to change not only laws but also culture.

The group started a corporate responsibility campaign that teams up with different businesses to prohibit open-carry in their stores. Target, Chipotle and Starbucks are among the establishments that have adopted policies barring people openly carrying weapons.

"In our schools, we're teaching kids that if a man with a gun - a woman with a gun, person with a gun - comes into your school, hide, take cover, be quiet, don't say anything," Reeder said.

"And it's a message that we think is confusing and dangerous if they are going to be out with their parents shopping at Kroger or wherever, that they're going to see people who are openly carrying guns. What are they supposed to do? Be at ease in public but hide at school?"

By changing how people view and talk about guns, Reeder and her allies hope the public and legislators will support the group's proposals to promote gun safety.

"Ultimately we feel like we're going to be successful, but we just know that we're in it for the long haul," Reeder said.

Virginia Citizens Defense League

Philip Van Cleave, the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, has the same mentality but the opposite view on the topic. Van Cleave said groups like Moms Demand Action are trying to pass gun control laws - not gun safety laws. He believes they will ultimately fail because most Virginia legislators are for gun rights, not against them.

To Van Cleave, gun safety is knowing how to properly use a gun, and training people to do so - not infringing on their constitutional rights.

"I think that the other side has a huge mountain in front of them - a gigantic mountain," Van Cleave said. He said his organization's goal is to keep guns in the hands of Virginia citizens and ensure that they can exercise their right to bear arms.

"We also work as a watchdog, keeping our eye open for localities violating the laws when it comes to guns," Van Cleave said.

Van Cleave said constitutional rights should not be abridged simply on a fear that somebody someday may do something bad with a gun. He said the courts should punish people who commit horrible crimes and not let them off easy. That is more effective, Van Cleave said, than limiting how much ammunition a gun can hold.

"We don't see any advantage to restricting a law-abiding citizen's magazine size," Van Cleave said.

Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

Lori Haas is the Virginia state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which is pushing for education, research and legislation regarding guns and gun safety.

"I think there is a tendency by our political culture to ignore the effects of good policies on reducing gun violence," Haas said.

"Virginia is one state of many where gun deaths now outpace motor vehicle deaths. And we know there are things you can do to mitigate bad and drunk driving habits, such as speed limits and safety features of vehicles.

"We know there are things you can do. The states in this country that have strong gun laws have the lowest deaths, and the states that have the weakest laws have the most gun deaths," she said.

A recent report from the John Hopkins School of Public Health showed what can happen when a state changes its gun laws.

Three years ago, Missouri repealed its law requiring everyone seeking to purchase a firearm to pass a background check. Since then, the number of gun-related homicides has increased. Missouri's murder rates have risen as much as 25 percent since 2012.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015