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Opinion: Commentary: Assault Weapons Ban – Getting It Right in Virginia
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Opinion: Commentary: Assault Weapons Ban – Getting It Right in Virginia

Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee considered a House of Delegates’ bill to regulate assault rifles and other firearm attachments. I have always supported stronger regulation of assault rifles.

I lived through the 2002 D.C. sniper attacks while crouching in my car getting gas to avoid being shot. In 2016, three police officers including one of my constituents were shot with an AR-15. Officer Ashley Guindon was killed on her first day on the job. I do not support civilian ownership of weapons of war that are unnecessary for hunting or self-protection.

Experts estimate that there are five to ten million assault weapons in the U.S., including at least 100,000 in Virginia. The proposed House bill felonized the sale or transfer of assault weapons, certain magazines and silencers, and had no buyback program for assault rifles. It felonized the possession of certain magazines and silencers after two years. We repeatedly advised the House that the votes did not exist in the Senate, but the House chose to send the bill over by a one vote margin with three House Democrats voting “no” and one not voting.

In our chamber, multiple Senators were concerned that the House bill did not “grandfather” guns owned by existing owners, specific legal disposal rules, and questioned the absence of an explicit, funded gun buyback program which could turn a ban into a constitutional taking requiring government compensation. They also pointed out that many of the assault weapon features described in the ban bill are also on other types of weapons, therefore likely creating confusion for law enforcement officers and civilians and making it unclear exactly which guns were banned. They were clear they would not support passage this session.

The bill was also not endorsed or a priority for Moms Demand Action, Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, or Everytown for Gun Safety.

I joined three Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee to continue the bill to the 2021 session and refer it to the Crime Commission so experts can refine and clarify the bill. That will also give us time to hold fuller public hearings over the summer or fall. We expect the Crime Commission to fully analyze and clarify the bill to carry out our intent. I am wholly committed to seeing this through and we did not “kill the assault weapons bill.”

We have made significant progress on firearm violence prevention. We have passed (1) universal background checks, (2) reinstating Virginia’s “one-gun-a-month” purchase limit, (3) emergency risk protection or “red flag” orders, (4) authorizing local governments to regulate guns in public buildings, parks and events, (5) allowing firearm forfeiture during protective order proceedings, (6) banned bump stocks, and (7) increased penalties for child access. Legislation to broaden the crimes that surrender firearms rights to misdemeanor stalking and sexual battery is pending along with my voluntary Do Not Sell List legislation. Passage of these bills is unprecedented and historic.

Many Other Bills Advance

With three weeks left, we have two dozen major bills on education, transportation, energy, environment, labor, criminal justice reform, equity and a $110 billion budget to consider.

The legislature has sent at least 15 of my bills to Gov. Ralph Northam, including my legislation prohibiting holding a phone while driving and a bill banning “conversion therapy.” My legislation to tighten up Virginia’s loose predatory lending laws awaits the Governor’s signature and predatory lending establishments, like those dotting the U.S. 1 Corridor, must stop charging 120-400 percent interest rates on six-month loans and will likely pack up and leave.

Both the House and Senate budgets included my initiative to conduct a study to extend the Blue Line Metro to Prince William County.

The Senate also approved over $1.2 billion in new funding for K-12, a three percent pay raise for teachers, 200 new school counselors, $81 million for subsidized preschool and $96 million for free community college for some disadvantaged students. We voted to create Medicaid-funded adult dental coverage, a five percent pay increase for home health care workers and increased mental health care funding. We proposed the largest contribution ever to the Water Quality Improvement Fund. A joint House-Senate committee will now resolve the differences in the two budget bills.

This is an historic session. I hope you will email your comments to me at scott@scottsurovell.org.