House Panel Passes Assault Weapons Bill (HB961)

The Richmond Times filed the following report on February 7, 2020:

A House of Delegates committee on Friday backed the most controversial bill of Virginia Democrats’ gun control package, a vote that led to gun rights supporters being escorted out of a committee room.

The House Public Safety Committee voted 12-9 to send a revised version of an assault weapons ban proposed by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, to the full House of Delegates. The House will have to act on the measure, House Bill 961, by Tuesday — the deadline for the Senate and House to vote on their own bills so approved measures can cross over to the other chamber.

“These assault weapon laws have been shown consistently to reduce mass murder,” Levine said of the measure, which is one of the eight gun control bills that Gov. Ralph Northam backs. “We’re not banning guns … but we will reduce the incidents of mass murder and we will reduce, in particular, the fatalities from mass murder.”

The original version of the bill called for people who already own an assault weapon to register it with state police. The amended version of the bill gets rid of that requirement.

The substitute bans high-capacity magazines that hold more than 12 rounds while also outlawing bump stocks. The shooters in the Virginia Tech and Virginia Beach mass shootings each used high-capacity magazines.

Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said that assault weapons “are not protected by the Second Amendment” and that the court system will uphold the legislation. A federal assault weapons ban was in place from 1994 until 2004.

“You just need to pass it,” he said.

The committee, in its final meeting before crossover, agreed, advancing the bill on a party-line vote.

The endorsement came during a tense early morning meeting at which gun rights proponents — many of whom came to Richmond on Jan. 20 for a rally that drew an estimated 22,000 people — said the bill would infringe on their Second Amendment rights.

“They’re not listening to massive numbers of people saying, ‘No, you’re not going to violate my constitutional rights,’ ” Philip Van Cleave, the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said in an interview.

Immediately after the vote, gun rights supporters, who wore VCDL’s “Guns Save Lives” stickers, started yelling at committee members, saying things such as: “We will not comply.”

The crowd, which filled the House Committee Room in the Pocahontas Building and had overflow supporters in the hallways, was then forced to leave the room under threat from Capitol Police that people who did not leave would be arrested. (In the opening days of the session last month, Democrats approved a prohibition against carrying firearms either concealed or openly into the state Capitol and the Pocahontas Building. Members of the public must now go through metal detectors.)

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, the committee’s chairman, stood behind the decision to have Capitol Police clear the room.

“I just thought just for the safety of the committee, safety of the public, safety of the staff that have to be here, we made the best decision,” he said in an interview after the meeting.

The meeting continued after the incident, with only committee members, police and media present.

The proposed ban on assault weapons is the only bill of the Northam-backed package that hasn’t yet cleared the House of Delegates.

Even with the changed version of the bill, which Levine described as a compromise so current assault weapon owners can keep their guns without registration, supporters of the bill say it will save lives.

“These guns were never, ever designed for civilian use,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond. “They are military assault rifles designed to kill as many people as possible.”

Opponents say it infringes on the Second Amendment.

“We have a right to protect ourselves,” said Del. Tommy Wright, R-Lunenburg.

NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen called the proposed ban “egregious.”

If the House approves the bill, it will go to the Senate, which does not have its own bill to ban assault weapons.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, had proposed an assault weapons ban, a measure that did not include a “grandfather” provision for current owners of weapons deemed assault weapons. That prompted concerns from gun rights supporters about confiscation. Saslaw withdrew his bill the first week of the session.

Hope, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, said he’s optimistic about the bill’s future if it gets to the Senate.

“We want to do something about this. Our House members feel very strongly about leading in this area,” Hope said. “It’s a strong bill, and I think the Senate will be supportive.”

Also Friday, the committee voted to remove the option for people trying to get a concealed handgun permit to demonstrate their competence by completing an online test. The Senate has already approved that measure.