Dozens of pieces of gun-related legislation that advocates say will bolster public safety are winding their way through Virginia’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly, including a measure that would halt the sale of certain semi-automatic firearms.
The question hanging over all the bills is: Just how many will Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin veto?
Youngkin, who generally toed the GOP party line on firearms rhetoric in his campaign but notably did not receive the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, is a former private equity executive whose first two years in public office were spent with a GOP majority in the state House of Delegates that largely prevented Democratic gun bills from reaching his desk.
After that chamber flipped in November’s elections, the governor signaled to lawmakers in a speech on the session’s opening day that he wanted to see bills that would tighten the penalties on criminals who use guns rather than legislation further restricting the purchase and use of firearms. Still, he’s been assiduously quiet about where he might wield his veto pen, as he navigates a divided government dynamic and negotiations with the new Democratic legislative majority over a proposed sports arena deal in northern Virginia.
Youngkin’s press office did not directly respond to questions about his position on a range of bills but said he would review any legislation that comes to his desk.
The administration’s silence has left advocates on both sides of the issue uncertain of the final outcome.
“He basically telegraphed a message of, ‘If you’re going to send me more gun control, I’m not going to be happy with it.’ But that’s all we know,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a grassroots gun-rights group.
Among the dozens of gun bills sponsored this year by Democratic lawmakers — who do not have the numbers to override a Youngkin veto — is legislation that would prohibit the importation, sale, manufacture, purchase or transfer of an “assault firearm” made on or after July 1 of this year. Possession of such a weapon would be banned for those under 21, and the measure would also prohibit the sale of certain ammunition-feeding devices that can hold over 10 rounds.
Republicans and other opponents have questioned the constitutionality of the measure that would impact the sale of new models of the popular AR-15.
Proponents have argued it would limit the number of “weapons of war” available for sale in the future, along with high-capacity magazines that have been used in mass shootings.
On Wednesday, the Senate passed the legislation on a party-line vote after a lengthy debate in which one GOP legislator warned it would ultimately be vetoed. A House version cleared that chamber last week, also along party lines.
Other gun-control proposals making their way through the General Assembly with Democratic support include measures that would ban assault weapons in public areas, ban plastic guns able to be missed by metal detectors, and prohibit the concealed carry of a gun by most people onto the premises of a restaurant or club that sells alcohol. Additional bills would create a civil penalty for people who leave guns unattended and visible in a motor vehicle, and require people purchasing a gun to complete a firearms safety course or otherwise “demonstrate competence” with a firearm.
“We’re hopeful that if the governor wants to keep Virginia safe that he’ll sign these bills into law,” said Mike Fox, a volunteer who helps lead the Virginia chapter of Moms Demand Action.
Meanwhile, a small handful of bills are moving toward Youngkin’s desk with broad bipartisan support.
One would expand the types of firearm safety devices eligible for a previously enacted tax credit. Another would ban auto sears, which convert semi-automatic handguns into automatic weapons. Older ones permissible under federal law would be allowed, according to Van Cleave.
A third measure aims to provide a legal mechanism for parents to be charged with a felony under the state’s child abuse and neglect law if they allow a child who is known to be a danger to have access to a firearm, said the measure’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg.
VanValkenburg said he worked on the bill with the family of Lucia Bremer, a 13-year-old suburban Richmond girl who was shot nine times after she and a friend walked home from school in 2021.
A teenager, who was 14 at the time but was tried as an adult, pleaded guilty last year to first-degree murder and other charges in Bremer’s killing. But the teen’s legal guardian, who was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor, on the basis of the boy having access to the gun, was found not guilty.
“Lucia died on the floor of a garage while I stroked her hair and I tried to will her back to life. Lucia is dead in part because an adult gun owner made a choice to leave his firearm easily accessible to his teenager,” Bremer’s mother, Meredith Bremer, told a Senate committee.
The bill cleared a Senate committee on a bipartisan 13-0 vote with two Republican abstentions.
When Van Cleave stood to speak against the bill, he faced sharp questioning from Sen. Mark Peake, a Republican of Lynchburg, who asked that gun-rights groups meet with VanValkenburg to find compromise.
The Democratic legislative majorities have also rejected a range of GOP-sponsored gun bills, including a measure that would have increased the mandatory minimum sentence for the use or display of a firearm during the commission of certain felonies.