Gun bills, at a glance

What do the gun-related bills filed in the Virginia General Assembly in recent weeks say that has so many people fired up?

Gov. Ralph Northam set off the discussion around the state about guns after the Nov. 5 election, citing several areas in which he wants to see legislation passed to address instances of mass shootings. The most notable this year was at a city building in Virginia Beach in May, where a disgruntled employee killed 12 people.

The governor’s comments have led the Louisa County Board of Supervisors, like counterparts in many rural localities, to consider designating their community as a “Second Amendment sanctuary.” The board’s Dec. 2 meeting has been moved to the Betty J. Queen Intergenerational Center to accommodate an expected large crowd.

State delegates and senators have responded to Northam’s call by filing bills to address the following:

Universal background checks. This bill would close the loophole that allows private individuals to sell or transfer guns to each other without submitting to an official background check. 

Currently, when an individual buys a gun from a licensed dealer, the transaction is subject to checks to ensure the buyer has no criminal record and is not barred from gun possession for some other reason. A seller who does not obtain a background check would be guilty of a felony; the buyer would be guilty of a misdemeanor. The bill gives Virginia State Police three days to check the records of the buying and selling parties. The bill includes some exemptions, including transfers between family members.

A “red flag” law. This would enable police to confiscate firearms from an individual when there is evidence they pose an immediate danger to themselves or others. Firearms would have to be returned to the owner after an emergency period of 14 days, although that period could be extended to up to 180 days. Critics say a red flag law could be subject to abuse.

“There would be due process. A person would be able to present their case that they’re not a danger to others,” said Andrew Patrick, director of political communications at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington, D.C. 

A ban on “assault firearm” possession. Senate Bill 16, introduced by Majority Leader Dick Saslaw of Fairfax County, defines assault firearms as semi-automatic guns that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition or have certain characteristics, such as silencers. Saslaw filed a separate bill to ban “trigger activators” that can increase the firing rate of semi-automatic guns. Bump stocks, such as the one used by the gunman in the Las Vegas massacre in 2017, are a type of trigger activator.

One handgun purchase per 30 days. Except for licensed gun dealers, people would only be able to buy one handgun per month.

Adult supervision of youth firearm use. Current state law requires an adult to monitor a child under the age of 12 who uses a gun. The proposed change would raise the age restriction to 18. Critics say this will make it tougher to interest teenagers in hunting.

“It’s hard to get a teen out in the woods,” William Middlebrook, a Louisa County resident, told the supervisors at their Nov. 18 meeting. “If you don’t get them when they’re young, they’re not going to want to do it.”

The same bill would raise the minimum age to possess a handgun from 18 to 21. The bill allows an exception for a child under 18 with prior permission of a parent or guardian.

Barring firearm possession by someone subject to a protective order. Anyone subject to a “permanent” protective order, which is one with a maximum duration of two years, would have to sell or transfer their gun to another person within 24 hours after the order’s effective date. This would expand gun restrictions, which currently apply in cases of family abuse, to include people given protective orders for intimidation such as stalking.

Report of a lost or stolen gun. A person would have to report a theft or missing gun within 24 hours or face up to a $250 fine.

While Democrats at the state level seek curbs on guns, Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger has been working on changes to gun laws at the federal level. She was part of a majority in the House of Representatives that passed a universal background check bill earlier this year. The Senate has not taken up the bill.

“It had bipartisan support and is very straightforward,” she said. “Our bill doesn’t change the qualifications for a firearm purchase, it applies it to all purchases.”

A pending bill in Congress would give states incentives to apply red flag laws, Spanberger said.

Spanberger also backs an “enhanced” background check law to close the “Charleston loophole,” so called because it allowed a South Carolina man to buy the gun he used to kill nine African Americans at a church in 2015. The bill would expand the maximum length of a background check to a week (currently it is three days), because the FBI may need that much time to complete the process.