Critics say Va.’s gun laws could encourage trafficking
Open season for gun enthusiasts in Virginia begins July 1, as state residents will be allowed to purchase more than one handgun per month for the first time since 1993.
The General Assembly voted to repeal its 19-year-old restriction on gun sales that stemmed from Virginia’s days as a key cog in the “iron pipeline,” when about 40 percent of guns traced from New York City crimes originated in Virginia.
The one-handgun-per-month limit accomplished its goal of reducing the number of Virginia guns used to commit crimes in other states, according to a 1995 report by the Virginia State Crime Commission, but proponents of the repeal said mandatory background checks for gun buyers made the limit archaic and unnecessary.
Some family members of those killed or wounded during the shooting spree at Virginia Tech in 2007 lobbied Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to veto the repeal, but he signed it into law less than a week later.
“We find it shameful that Gov. McDonnell would chose to repeal Virginia’s landmark one-handgun-per-month law over the objections of some law enforcement officials and the objections of Virginia Tech families,” said Brian Malte, director of legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
A Richmond Times-Dispatch poll from February showed that 66 percent of Virginians opposed repealing the one-gun-per-month law.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun group, said that repeal was based on a constitutional protection, not a public need.
“Why do you need to be a Jew or need to be a Catholic?” President Philip Van Cleave said. “You don’t need it, but you want it. That’s what we call freedom and liberty.”
Van Cleave said opponents of the repeal who argued that no reasonable person should need more than one handgun per month missed the point.
“We don’t limit that you can only go to church two times a month or only say 10 words per day,” Van Cleave said. “This was an artificial limitation placed on a right, and the repeal is way over due.”
But Malte disagreed.
“This is not a limitation on a right, “ he said. “It’s a law used to stop gun trafficking at the point of purchase.”
Since its inception in 1993, legislators added several exceptions to the one-handgun-per-month law to allow people to acquire multiple guns if they could pass enhanced background checks or earn a concealed carry permit. Opponents of the repeal said those provisions would accommodate any law-abiding citizen or collector who wanted more than one handgun in a 30-day period, thus making the repeal useless.
Malte noted that even with the one-a-month restriction, people could still purchase 12 handguns per year under the old law.
“If someone is going to buy 19 guns at once, they’re not going to be taking them home as Christmas presents,” he said.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has long been involved in Virginia’s gun control debate, criticized the state legislature shortly after the one-handgun-a-month repeal became official.
“I just think that guns are a problem for everybody in America,” Bloomberg told Richmond’s CBS station. “The only one that’s going to buy that quantity of guns is somebody that plans to traffic them.”
Bloomberg donated a total of $150,000 to six Democratic Virginia Senate candidates during 2011, hoping to help strengthen the state’s gun laws. While several pro-gun bills failed during the 2012 session, Bloomberg said he would continue to scrutinize Virginia until the flow of guns stopped.
“Keep the guns from coming to New York, and you won’t hear from me in Virginia,” he said.
But Van Cleave said the gun smuggling issue had been misrepresented. Although he conceded that the problem existed during the early 1990s, he blamed New York criminals for causing it.
“It wasn’t some industrious Virginian smuggling guns to New York City, it’s people coming from New York to Virginia to get guns by some illegal means,” Van Cleave said. “It’s really their problem. They need to keep their criminals and drugs in New York. I’m not giving up my rights because New York can’t control its criminals.”
Other gun bills received mixed support during the 2012 General Assembly, as lawmakers passed a bill allowing state employees to keep firearms in locked cars at work and repealed fingerprint requirements for concealed-carry permits. But, legislators also rejected a repeal of Virginia’s background check laws and a bill to force colleges to allow students and professors to carry concealed weapons in campus facilities.
But Malte said that the one-handgun-per-month repeal — coupled with the refusal to close the so-called “gun show loophole” that allows people to buy guns from unlicensed dealers at gun shows without undergoing a background check — undermines Virginia’s ability to stop gun trafficking.
“We need background checks on all gun sales, and we need a one-gun-every-30-days limit,” Malte said. “Those two laws will ensure that dangerous people don’t get weapons.”
Image: Virginia State Capitol building. Anderskev, via Wikimedia Commons.