A Virginia Senate committee voted down an assault weapon bill Monday morning, blocking the most contentious piece of the Democratic gun control agenda.
The bill — which would have banned future sales of assault weapons and outlawed magazines capable of holding more than 12 rounds — had already been watered down from its original form in order to pass the House of Delegates.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s 10-5 vote Monday morning confirmed the more moderate upper chamber had little appetite to impose new regulations on the type of weaponry Virginians can legally buy. After the vote, gun rights supporters who had packed the room broke into applause and cheers.
Democrats won majorities in both General Assembly chambers last year after making gun control a marquee campaign issue. But the party never seemed to unify behind a specific approach to regulating assault weapons. A bill to impose a sweeping ban on possession of assault weapons was pulled from consideration by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-35th, of Fairfax, and the bill being considered Monday had undergone significant revisions to get as far as it did.
Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-25th, of Bath, suggested postponing consideration of the bill for a year and having the Virginia State Crime Commission study its definitions of what qualifies as an assault weapon.
Deeds was joined by three other Democrats — Sens. Chap Petersen, D-34th, of Fairfax, Scott Surovell, D-36th, who represents Prince William, Fairfax and Stafford counties, and John Edwards, D-21st, of Roanoke — in voting for the motion to continue the bill to 2021.
Monday’s vote wasn’t unexpected, and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-41st, of Fairfax, quickly issued a statement criticizing the Senate panel’s decision.
“The Democratic platform last fall was very clear. Limiting access to weapons of war used in mass murder was a key part of that platform,” Filler-Corn said. “The House of Delegates delivered on our promise to take action to keep those weapons off our streets. To call today’s vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee a disappointment would be an understatement.”
A handful of Democrats also opposed the bill when it passed the House last week on a 51-48 vote.
The bill also had the support of Gov. Ralph Northam. At Monday’s hearing, Northam’s Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said the legislation had been “mischaracterized.”
“It does not amount to a gun grab,” Moran said. “It is not registration. It is not unconstitutional. It does not make our fellow Virginians felons overnight.”
Several gun control proponents, including multiple parents of victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, said the bill would save lives.
“What else can we say to you?” said Lori Haas, the Virginia director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence whose daughter was wounded in the Virginia Tech shooting. “People are dying, and you care more about a piece of hardware.”
The legislation also would have imposed new restrictions on silencers and banned bump stocks, devices meant to allow semi-automatic firearms to fire at a faster rate, mimicking automatic gunfire.
As drafted, the bill would have required Virginians who already own assault weapons to register them with the state for a $50 fee. That provision was later removed, allowing those who already own assault weapons to keep them without taking any additional action. But pro-gun advocates said the end result was still unworkable.
D.J. Spiker, Virginia director for the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, said that because the bill would have made it a felony to “import” an assault weapon, someone taking their gun on an out-of-state hunting trip would potentially violate the law by bringing it home.
“It has unfortunately turned into a Frankenstein,” Spiker said of the bill.
Though blocking the assault weapon bill was a top priority for pro-gun groups, other high-profile gun bills are well on their way to Northam’s desk.
Both chambers have passed bills to require background checks on all gun sales, create risk protection orders that would allow authorities to temporarily seize guns from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others and give cities, counties and towns more power to impose local gun restrictions.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, said his group will continue to fight all of the legislation.
“This is a great victory on one bill,” he said. “It’s one battle in a war.”