RICHMOND — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday halted for the year a highly controversial bill to ban the sale or transfer of assault weapons and the possession of “high capacity” magazines of 12 or more rounds.
The Democratic-controlled committee voted 10-5, with four Democrats — Sens. John Edwards of Roanoke, Creigh Deeds of Bath, Scott Surovell of Fairfax County and Chap Petersen of Fairfax City — joining Republicans to postpone consideration of the bill and have the Virginia State Crime Commission study the proposal before it’s brought up again next year.
It was a rare victory for the gun rights advocates who have seen numerous other gun control bills pass through the General Assembly this winter. Gov. Ralph Northam and Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn supported the bill.
“We didn’t think there was time to do it,” said Edwards, the committee chair, after the meeting. “We thought we needed a good year to sort through all the issues.”
The bill from Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, would, among other things, require Virginians to turn over or destroy ammunition magazines considered to be “high capacity” and allow the possession of centerfire assault rifles but prohibit the sale or transfer of them in most situations.
Gun rights advocates wearing Guns Save Lives stickers and carrying signs, as well as gun control groups and families of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, packed the room Monday morning to hear the bill in the committee.
“What else can we say to you? People are dying, and you care more about a piece of hardware,” said Lori Haas, who has been advocating for gun control in Richmond since her daughter survived being shot at Virginia Tech.
There was discussion about the definitions in the bill, such as what constitutes an assault weapon and how various pieces of equipment applied to the bill. Edwards said he also had questions about what to do if people don’t comply with the proposal.
“We passed a lot of gun bills this year,” Deeds said. “There are obviously a lot of questions about definitions in this bill. Definitions do matter.”
After the vote, gun rights supporters erupted into applause in the meeting room and out in the hallway, where dozens more people waited.
“It’s a war against gun owners, and this is just one battle,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of gun rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League. “I certainly hope we can stop more of these bills, but they will be tough battles.”
Peter Read, whose daughter Mary Read was one of the 32 students and faculty killed at Virginia Tech in April 2007, said there has been positive movement in the direction of gun control in Virginia this year. But he said he was disappointed this bill didn’t advance.
“I do hope that nothing happens in the intervening year to make any of these senators regret their vote,” Read said.
Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said her Democratic colleagues “wimped out.”
“I didn’t have enough people who had enough backbone to do what 2 million voters asked us to do,” she said.
Lucas said they were intimidated by all the gun rights supporters.
“They should’ve just followed me. They can stand behind me,” Lucas said. “Do I look like I’m scared?”
The bill faced an uphill battle in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which includes a few Democrats who are friendly to gun rights.
The Senate already has defeated other gun control bills, such as strengthening a law about adults recklessly allowing a loaded firearm to fall into the hands of a minor and requiring people to report their lost or stolen firearms.
Levine had changed the original bill to increase its chances of getting out of the House of Delegates. Even then it squeaked out narrowly on a 51-48 vote. At first, he proposed expanding the definition of an assault weapon and requiring anyone owning one to register it.
Under the revised legislation, people would have been able to possess assault weapons, but it would be illegal to import, sell, transfer or manufacture any assault firearms. There were some exceptions for transfers, such as if it happens at a shooting range for the purpose of target shooting, or as gifts to immediate family members or via wills or estates. The bill also would ban the import, sale or transfer of silencers.
National Rifle Association lobbyist D.J. Spiker said the bill had “turned into a Frankenstein.”
There had been efforts behind the scenes to change the bill to gain support from Senate Democrats. But as Edwards whispered to numerous gun rights advocates before the committee meeting began, gun control activists said that’s when they knew the fate of the bill.
Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran said the bill had been “mischaracterized.”
“It does not amount to a gun grab,” he said. “It is not registration. It is not unconstitutional. It does not make our fellow Virginians felons overnight.”
Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, the House speaker, said to call the Senate committee’s vote “a disappointment would be an understatement.”
“The Democratic platform last fall was very clear,” Filler-Corn said in a statement. “Limiting access to weapons of war used in mass murder was a key part of that platform. The House of Delegates delivered on our promise to take action to keep those weapons off our streets.”
The Northam administration expects the bill to come back up next year.
“Despite today’s vote, the governor is proud of the several common sense gun safety measures that continue to advance,” a spokeswoman for the governor said. “These bills represent historic steps forward in keeping Virginians safe from gun violence.”
Both chambers still need to come to a consensus on a few other gun control bills, including expanding background checks and allowing courts to temporarily ban people from possessing firearms if there are clear signs that they pose a danger to themselves or others.
Surovell said there were not enough votes to pass the bill on the Senate floor, and that it was a better use of time to focus on reaching an agreement on other complicated legislation. While he voted to halt the bill this year, he said he supports licensing assault weapons and limiting their sales.
“We’re doing a ton of really big bills this session,” he said. “There’s only so much oxygen in the environment to get these done.”