Gun Violence and Virginia’s General Assembly

Virginia’s General Assembly this session has already killed some important gun violence prevention legislation. Let me say that again: Republicans in Virginia’s legislature have blocked passage of popular policies that would help prevent gun violence without also interfering with the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms. 

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee killed SB1034, which would have created a Class 1 Misdemeanor for purchasing more than one handgun in a 30 day period.  Since it would have exempted several classes of gun purchasers, including anyone with a valid concealed handgun permit and anyone buying a handgun in a private sale, it’s not clear how this would interfere with the right of any law-abiding Virginia resident’s right to “keep and bear arms.”  Besides the obvious point that the Second Amendment says nothing about just how many arms a citizen has a right to “keep and bear,” I personally wonder why anyone would want to purchase more than a dozen weapons of any kind in a given year.  But since most citizens qualify for concealed permits, and any citizen could make as many private purchases as time permits, it seems that this legislation would have one important effect: making mass purchases of firearms for transport to states with more restrictive firearms laws slightly more difficult.  This does, in fact, happen.  And Virginia can help stop it.

SB1034 would not end this kind of gun trafficking forever.  Nothing ever will, really (though a Federal gun violence prevention regime with uniform regulations would help).  Just making it more difficult would require a system that alerted County Sheriffs and the Circuit Courts of outlier purchasers, and that runs into the desire of armed citizens to hide from the government whether they own firearms at all. But a person who has never before purchased a firearm in Virginia showing up wanting to buy 20 pistols in a couple of weeks should raise eyebrows.  This won’t happen soon, but we said the same thing about drinking age and drunk driving not so long ago.  Maybe this is an area where we can go back to an old method: give County Sheriffs a role. I bet every Sheriff you ask can give you a list of people in his or her county who should probably not have a gun handy.  In the US we have no elected official who is closer to the people, and this may make Sheriffs the best gatekeeper on this.  

The General Assembly also killed legislation that would prohibit sales of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds and raise the minimum age for legal purchase of a firearm from a licensed gun dealer.  Both bills would also have redefined “assault firearm” to mean a weapon with a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds.  These policies also look like logical ways to reduce gun violence and its impact when it does happen without materially affecting the right of law-abiding citizens to “keep and bear arms.”  After all, we prohibit some forms of dangerous speech.  Why is prohibition of certain types of dangerous firearms?

The Senate did kill SB1158, what some call Constitutional Carry, 19-18 on Monday. This is a big defeat for the “anyone can carry, anywhere, anytime, open or concealed” lobby.  Republican Senators Emmet Hanger and Dick Saslaw, to their credit, voted nay.  Two other Republicans (Stanley and Wagner) abstained or missed the vote.  Supporters of Constitutional Carry believe that government cannot limit Second Amendment rights by increasing the cost of exercising them, for instance with sales taxes on firearms, requiring permits or training, or liability regulations.  They argue that it matters by citing Vermont as a low-crime state that has never restricted carrying firearms and suggesting that both deterrent and responsive effects would reduce crime under less restrictive concealed and open carry laws. Trouble is that Johns Hopkinsdata don’t support this claim, and in fact Constitutional Carry may increase crime. It has traditionally struck most people as intuitive that a person walking down the street with a gun might well be up to no good and should be reported to police.  Constitutional Carry proponents want to normalize the presence of firearms in our routine lives – they want us to get used to seeing guns everywhere.  Evidence suggests that this would not reduce crime by deterring criminals or ensuring rapid response, but it would without a doubt have one effect: make it easier for the bad guy to walk into a school, church, bank, sports bar, or government building without raising alarms.  

And one key piece of gun violence legislation remains alive.  HB2504 would make possession of a firearm by persons subject to a permanent protective order for subjecting another person to violence, force, or threat a Class 6 Felony.  This kind of “Red Flag” law makes all the sense in the world: people who have demonstrated violent behavior toward others should not have a right to possess weapons after due process has confirmed their violent behavior. As of now this bill sits in the House Courts of Justice Committee.  Click the link and if your Delegate sits on this Committee I urge you to let them know how you stand on this.  Virginia Citizens Defense League members definitely will.

No exercise of any right comes without cost.  Exercise of free speech and association is not free – we have to spend time if nothing else.  My own exercise of the right to express myself on this blog costs something – web hosting is not free, and government rightly limits the scope of my right to political expression and constrains incitement to violence or defamation and libel.  Expansion of my media empire would require further costs and conformance to regulations of many kinds, from employment to environmental.  Those who wish to exercise other rights must also pay to do so – if your name isn’t Miranda, you probably don’t get SCOTUS certiori without an expensive lawyer.  It’s not clear why exercise of Second Amendment rights should cost nothing.

In any event, we need to push the General Assembly to pass legislation that helps reduce gun violence and keep firearms out of the hands of bad guys with guns.  The law should require a thorough criminal background check for all gun sales or transfers, and no person who cannot legally purchase a beer should be able to legally purchase a firearm.  We need to find a way to limit possession of weapons with high muzzle velocity and/or allow rapid fire of large amounts of ammunition, including prohibition of bump stocks and other aftermarket devices.  We need to hold people liable when others use their weapons to commit crimes, just as we hold the bartender accountable for damage caused by a drunk driver after serving a customer too much alcohol.  And we need to lift the ban on research into the health effects on gun ownership and whether expanding gun possession and public carrying of firearms causes crime or helps reduce it.

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