Richmond Takes Aim at Gun Violence

Watching as Governor Northam signs the Safe Polls and Safe Capitol bills are (from left) Christian Heyne, VP of Policy for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence; Andy Goddard, Legislative Director, Virginia Center for Public Safety; Virginia Delegate Mark Levine (D-45); and Brigette Russell, Mom's Demand Action Virginia. (Courtesy photo)
Watching as Governor Northam signs the Safe Polls and Safe Capitol bills are (from left) Christian Heyne, VP of Policy for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence; Andy Goddard, Legislative Director, Virginia Center for Public Safety; Virginia Delegate Mark Levine (D-45); and Brigette Russell, Mom’s Demand Action Virginia. (Courtesy photo)

By Paul Friedman

Since the Democratic Party took hold of Richmond in 2019 with Governor Ralph Northam leading a friendly General Assembly, significant changes to gun laws have been enacted.

One of the laws that went into effect on July 1, 2020, was the Emergency Substantial Risk Order law. Commonly known as a red flag law and called ESRO by law enforcement, it provides for the temporary removal of a gun if both the police and a judge believe it’s essential to prevent people from imminent harm to themselves or others. The legislature also reinstated the one-gun-a-month purchase limit to block the ability of criminals to buy guns in large numbers to resell on the black market in other states with tighter gun restrictions.

One of the leaders of the gun violence prevention efforts, Alexandria’s own State Delegate, Mark Levine, may have lost his recent efforts to become the Democratic nominee for Lt. Governor and his seat representing the 45th House District, but he achieved real progress in the most recent session at the beginning of this year.

Quoting from Delegate Levine’s newsletter, these were his gun law reform achievements:

  • No Guns in Capitol Square or State Government Buildings: My law makes it a crime to bring a firearm or explosive into the Virginia Capitol, Capitol Square, or any state government building or office. (State Senator Adam Ebbin from Alexandria introduced a companion bill.)
  • No Guns in Polling Places: My law makes it a crime to bring a firearm into or within 40 feet of a polling place. No one should have to fear gun violence when they go to vote. The bill would also ban people from knowingly bringing firearms to any location where ballots are being counted or recounted.
  • No Guns for Domestic Abusers: People convicted of domestic violence cannot own or purchase firearms for three years after conviction. I was chief copatron of this law, a form of which I introduced in 2020. (A stronger form of this bill was introduced by McLean Delegate Kathleen Murphy (D-34) but watered down by the State Senate.)

Asked his reasons for barring guns from these places, Del. Levine explained, “There’s no reason for a law-abiding citizen to bring a firearm into the Capitol, a government office, or any other environment already secured by law enforcement. The only purpose is armed intimidation, and such intimidation has no place in a democracy. Lawmakers and government workers should be persuaded by logical argument, not by weaponry.”

On a subject that has been debated nationally, Arlington Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49) introduced and passed a law to extend the time to do background checks from three business days to five business days. This bill aims to prevent the failure to catch information that would bar someone from buying a gun. This precaution stems from the infamous case that has come to be called the Charleston Loophole at the federal level.

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a law to address this too. It extends the time allowed for checks to ten days. Unlike the Virginia law, it has been stalled by the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. Even if that were overcome, it is uncertain that all 50 Democratic Senators would vote for it because it is part of a comprehensive background check law.

The text of H.R. 1446 Enhanced Background Check Acts of 2021 explains it this way:

The “Charleston Loophole” is the flaw in the background check system that enabled a gunman to obtain the weapon used to murder nine people and wound three others as they participated in a Bible study at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. Had the FBI background check been completed, the perpetrator of the Emanuel massacre would have been barred from purchasing a firearm. In 2019, almost 3,000 guns were sold to people with criminal records, mental illnesses, and other circumstances which disqualify them from purchasing a firearm due to the inability to complete background checks within three days. Since 1998, the “Charleston Loophole” has put over 75,000 guns into the hands of prohibited gun owners.

Worse, FiveThirtyEight just reported that due to a lack of timely information, “the FBI never finished over 316,000 background checks in the first nine months of 2020 alone — far more than in any other year on record. And that number doesn’t include October, November, and December — usually the busiest months for gun sales, when 3.4 million background checks were opened last year. In other words, it’s impossible to know how many guns were sold to people in 2020 who couldn’t legally own them because those background checks were never completed.”

On the other side of the coin, several gun measures didn’t make it to the Governor’s desk for a signature. For instance, bills to ban assault weapons, reduce the threat of guns manufactured at home without a trackable number implanted on them (also known as ghost guns), and expand background checks to rental guns didn’t make it through.

Andy Goddard, Legislative Director for the Virginia Center for Public Safety and father of Colin Goddard, who was seriously wounded in the Virginia Tech mass shooting, was heartened by the effort but far from satisfied given that gun violence remains a crisis. “While these new laws are a great step toward reducing gun violence in Virginia, they come after decades of weakening or eliminating effective gun laws. There are still many proven measures that can be implemented to reduce the still rising toll of death and injury caused by the misuse of firearms.”

Paul A. Friedman, J.D., is Executive Director of the Alexandria-based gun violence prevention nonprofit, Safer Country, safercountry.org.