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Northam administration outlines gun control measures, releases proposed definition of 'assault weapon'

Update: A previous version of this story said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, would introduce a Northam-backed bill calling for an assault weapons ban. Ebbin, who introduced such a measure during the special session, is not planning to do so this session. A staffer for Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran said, "We ultimately decided to focus the administration's efforts on the House version of this bill," patroned by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria.

The Northam administration threw its weight Thursday behind the eight proposals it will back on gun control this legislative session, including a ban on assault weapons defined as any semiautomatic rifle or pistol with a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds.

The Northam-backed bill would go into effect in July, but would allow people who already own an assault weapon to obtain a permit from the state for restricted use. Without a permit, the guns would have to be disposed of, surrendered or made inoperable by January 2021.

The bills add specificity to proposals Gov. Ralph Northam outlined in the aftermath of the May 31 shooting in which a Virginia Beach city employee fatally shot 12 people. The proposals represent a small portion of the bills filed on gun topics so far this session.

“We are not taking positions on any other bills,” related to guns, said Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran during a presentation Thursday morning to state officials and community activists.

The Northam-backed assault weapons ban will be sponsored by Del. Mark Levine and Sen. Adam Ebbin, both Democrats from Alexandria.

It is different from a bill filed by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, that does not include a “grandfather” provision for current owners of weapons deemed assault weapons. The lack of such a provision in Saslaw’s bill has raised concerns among some gun-rights backers about confiscation. Saslaw has said his bill will be amended in committee to “resolve some problems.”

The Levine-Ebbin proposal would make it a Class 6 felony to import, sell, buy, transfer or build an assault weapon within the state.

Catherine Mortensen, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, said in a statement: “Gov. Northam is still seeking to punish law-abiding Virginians for the actions of violent criminals. While the governor claimed that he would temper some of his previous positions, this bill would decimate the self-defense rights of law-abiding Virginians.”

She said the Levine bill on assault firearms “includes a broad ban on commonly possessed firearms, gun registration, and outright confiscation, all of which are non-starters for the NRA. We remain committed to working with lawmakers where there is an opening and ability to do so.”

Northam’s package also includes a “red flag” law proposed by Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, and Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, that would remove firearms, through a legal warrant, from people deemed a risk to themselves through what is called an “extreme risk protective order.”

Republicans have expressed concern that this type of legislation would violate due-process rights for people deemed in crisis.

“This protective order may only be obtained by law enforcement or commonwealth’s attorneys,” Moran said. “So this isn’t neighbor against neighbor, or ex-spouse, those situations.”

Moran added that after 14 days, the issue is referred to a circuit judge, who would hear the case and decide how to move forward. “We addressed due process,” he said.

Northam’s budget includes $3.6 million and 10 Virginia State Police positions over two years to implement the law and other related bills.

Moran said that despite high tensions over gun control, the administration is “optimistic” about enacting its package.

“We expect these bills to pass,” he said. “Clearly, the opposition to these bills expect them to pass; otherwise, you wouldn’t have the sanctuary movements sprouting in the commonwealth.”

The Virginia Citizens Defense League says 125 counties, cities and towns in Virginia have backed “Second Amendment sanctuary” resolutions in which local government leaders pledge not to enforce gun laws they deem unconstitutional. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring says such resolutions have no legal force.

The Northam-backed legislative package also includes:

  • Legislation filed by Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, calling for universal background checks. Right now, only federally licensed firearms dealers have to conduct background checks.
  • Legislation by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, and Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, would ban people with a restraining order against them from possessing a firearm.
  • The restoration of the one-handgun-a-month law that was repealed in 2012, with legislation filed by Del. Jeion Ward and Sen. Mamie Locke, both Democrats from Hampton.
  • A proposal to require the reporting of lost and stolen firearms subject to a civil penalty as high as $250, filed by Del. Jeff Bourne and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, both Democrats from Richmond.
  • Legislation that would subject anyone who “recklessly” leaves a loaded, unsecured firearm near anyone under 18 to a Class 6 felony. Howell and Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, will carry that legislation.
  • Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, and Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, will sponsor legislation to allow local governments to regulate firearms in their jurisdictions. It also would repeal a law that bans localities from suing gun manufacturers and dealers.

BOB BROWN/times-dispatch  

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, smiled after conferring with House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, earlier this month on a package of operating rules.

House Democrats want to give committee power over firearms in Capitol. Republicans question the plan.

With tensions rising over potential gun control laws, House Democrats adopted new operating rules on a party-line vote on Thursday that give one House of Delegates committee the authority to set and revise policy on firearm possession in the Capitol and adjacent legislative buildings.

The rules, adopted a day after the new General Assembly convened under Democratic control, direct the House Rules Committee to establish a policy on the ability of legislators, staff, guests and visitors to carry guns into the Capitol, including the House chamber, and the Pocahontas Building, where most legislative business is conducted.

“The committee may amend the policy, which may or may not include a blanket prohibition, from time to time as appropriate,” states Rule 85 in a package of operating rules adopted on a 55-45 vote, reflecting the new political balance between Democrats and Republicans after November’s elections.

Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that a Jan. 20 rally organized by gun activists expected to draw thousands of armed men and women to Richmond could pose a security risk .

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in an interview that in such a large gathering, there is a possibility of groups hijacking the event to cause trouble.

But Republican leaders objected to a rule allowing a House committee, dominated by Democrats, to set policy for the Capitol, Pocahontas Building and other parts of the Capitol Square complex, where the Senate and governor’s office also share authority.

“We just thought that taking things out of the hands of the House at large and putting them in the hands of the Rules Committee was a way to avoid scrutiny and transparency and effect policies that have larger implications, but without all the members having to vote on them,” Gilbert said Thursday.

Gilbert was one of five Republicans appointed to the 18-member Rules Committee on Thursday.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, the lead parliamentarian for Democrats, said giving the Rules Committee authority over the firearm policy would allow the House to adjust the policy as threats and new intelligence demand. Simon said the committee would meet on the call of the chair — House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax — as needed.

“We want to keep the gun policy as flexible as possible,” Simon said. “We’ve been briefed by the Capitol Police on a number of different threats and difficult days that may be ahead. And I think we want to make sure we have a policy that’s flexible enough to react to whatever the reality is out there and on the ground.”

On the Senate side, rules established by that chamber make no mention of gun restrictions for the legislative session.

Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, the Republicans’ primary expert on parliamentary issues, said he believes that “all that we totally control is the House chamber.”

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, said the House cannot unilaterally set policy for the entire Capitol or Pocahontas Building.

“They can’t do that by themselves,” Locke said. “It has to be joint.”

The Joint Rules Committee is scheduled to meet Friday for the first time this year. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.

The House rules fight isn’t the only organizational issue slowing down the work of the new assembly.

The Senate has not acted on the procedural resolution adopted by the House to set joint operating rules and deadlines for the 60-day session, scheduled to adjourn on March 7.

The procedural agreement is caught up in a dispute partly over the lack of a deadline for legislators to act on the proposed constitutional amendment to require nonpartisan political redistricting, adopted by the assembly last year. The resolution containing the amendment must be adopted again this year — without change — to go to a voter referendum in November on whether to create a nonpartisan commission for drawing new congressional and assembly district boundaries in 2021.

Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, the previous chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said the procedural resolution potentially could allow legislators to avoid votes on the politically sensitive issue. Some Democrats are wary that the proposed constitutional amendment could disadvantage the party in the impending redistricting.

The resolution would set different deadlines for action on constitutional amendments than on normal legislation, as it also does for adoption of the state budget. Unlike the budget, so-called second reference resolutions, such as the constitutional amendment on redistricting, have no deadline for final action. The procedural agreement exempts such resolutions from a March 3 deadline for action on any bill or joint resolution.

“It looks like the [House Democratic] leadership is setting up a system so their members would never have to vote,” McDougle said in an interview on Thursday.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said that was not the intention of the proposed procedural resolution. She said it doesn’t set a deadline for acting on the constitutional amendment in order to give members more time to review enabling legislation that would specify how the redistricting commission would be formed and operated.

“It allows members to see the enabling legislation,” said Herring, who has publicly pledged to support nonpartisan redistricting.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, the president pro tempore, confirmed that the procedure for handling constitutional amendments is a “central issue” in the standoff, along with representation on conference committees that settle differences between the Senate and House on legislation, including the state budget.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take to break the impasse,” Lucas said.

Gilbert, who previously served as majority leader, said he and then-Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, approached Democratic leaders last month to agree on a procedural resolution for the upcoming session but were rebuffed.

“They’ve spent a lot more time on pomp and circumstance than being ready to govern from day one, and they still haven’t started,” he said.

Following weeks of pressure, Chesterfield supervisors vote to approve formal gun debate statement

As the General Assembly gathered this week to start considering gun control measures that have spurred some local governments to pass protest resolutions, Chesterfield County officials approved a formal statement addressing the debate following weeks of lobbying by gun-rights supporters.

A gun-rights group said Chesterfield’s statement, which it viewed as tepid in some respects, was significant enough to warrant listing the county as one of the 125 localities around the state that the group considers “Second Amendment sanctuaries.” But the chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors cautioned that the county’s statement does not fit neatly into the same category as resolutions passed by some other Virginia localities.

Chesterfield supervisors voted 5-0 at their Wednesday night organizational meeting to formally adopt a letter the panel wrote to state legislators outlining concerns residents have expressed to supervisors in recent weeks about gun control measures that Virginia lawmakers might enact.

That letter was penned following a contentious Dec. 11 meeting attended by more than 1,000 people, most of them gun-rights supporters. Members of the overflow crowd who packed into the county’s public meeting room that night demanded that the board pass a resolution declaring Chesterfield a gun-rights “sanctuary.” The board did not vote on a resolution, but Board of Supervisors Chair Leslie Haley told the crowd the county would forward their concerns to state legislators.

In a statement before Wednesday’s vote, Haley said the Board of Supervisors urged state lawmakers to “contribute to a productive, and not divisive, outcome.” Haley said the panel would not endorse any effort that would infringe on the right to keep and bear arms.

“What it’s basically saying is we’ve heard the citizens and, just like we’ve said, we have promised to share all of their comments downtown [with the General Assembly], and we absolutely understand what the Second Amendment is and we understand the voices of the citizens, and we support those voices,” Haley said after Wednesday’s vote.

Supervisors approved a motion from Haley that the panel accept the letter into the board’s official record, a move that she said makes the letter a formal resolution of the board.

County supervisors said in their letter that comments they’d received indicated strong support for Second Amendment rights. The Dec. 20 letter from the Board of Supervisors letter begins:

“We are all aware of the movement across the Commonwealth of Virginia raising concerns that the 2020 General Assembly session may consider legislative changes that unlawfully restrict citizens’ Second Amendment rights under the Constitution. The purpose of this letter from the Board of Supervisors is to relay what occurred at our most recent meeting on December 11, including comments made by each individual board member.”

The letter also includes two appendices that contain additional statements from incoming Supervisors Jim Ingle Jr. and Kevin Carroll as well as Chesterfield Chief of Police Jeffrey S. Katz.

Among those statements were comments from Supervisor Chris Winslow, who said in the letter that newly elected state lawmakers had advocated for “heavy-handed measures” to keep guns from law-abiding people. Outgoing Supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle, meanwhile, said that it was misleading for politicians to suggest they were making people safer by passing gun control measures.

Those kinds of comments drew support from Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which is opposing new gun control laws. Van Cleave said he was also pleased with the letter’s statement that nearly all of the 1,000 people who attended the Dec. 11 meeting were there to support gun rights. Van Cleave said the sentiments expressed in the letter were enough for his group to list Chesterfield as a “Second Amendment sanctuary” hours before Wednesday’s vote.

Van Cleave said that the letter was still fairly weak, adding that he would have written some parts of it differently.

“It got across the finish line,” Van Cleave said Thursday. “It was nothing to write home about.”

The letter says that supervisors are operating under the assumption that if an unconstitutional law is passed, then the courts will weigh in on any dispute.

“Our individual and collective statements express that these individual-rights issues are appropriately considered and decided at the state and federal government levels, not by a Virginia locality,” the letter says.

Asked after the vote if the move designates the county as a gun-rights sanctuary, Haley said it did not.

“If somebody is looking to put it in a little box like some of the other resolutions [passed by other localities], it doesn’t go in that box,” Haley said.

Supervisor Jim Holland, the lone Democrat on the board, said he voted for Haley’s motion in order to reaffirm his own statements included in the letter, including his call for “common-sense” gun control laws. Holland added that the shootings that have taken place in the U.S. are horrifying. A mass shooting in Virginia Beach last year that left 12 dead spurred calls for gun control from Virginia Democrats.

Holland also said that citizens on both sides of the gun debate were entitled to a response from supervisors.

Holland disputed the notion from the gun-rights group that Chesterfield is a “sanctuary” locality for gun rights.

“We have not taken any action to do so nor would I support any action to do so,” Holland said Thursday.

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Lawmakers, backed by Northam, urge local authority over Confederate monuments

Backed by Gov. Ralph Northam, a group of Democratic lawmakers is proposing legislation to give localities the authority to remove or maintain Confederate statues and memorials.

Northam also said he is backing a proposal for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in the U.S. Capitol, which is under the purview of state government and sits as a representation of Virginia among the key figures of other states. Each state gets two statues as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection. Virginia’s other statue there depicts George Washington.

“For many people, Robert E. Lee represents a painful and divisive past,” Northam said. “We will recommend a replacement that better represents the modern, diverse and inclusive state our commonwealth is today.”

As for renderings of Lee elsewhere, and the dozens of other Confederate memorials, Northam said, “our communities must be the ones to decide what best represents who they are today.”

“Some Virginians view these memorials as an homage to the sacrifices of their ancestors. But for many others Confederate memorials are a reminder of the enslavement and torture of their ancestors,” Northam said, adding that many were erected during segregation, a reminder of recent racism.

Referring to Confederate memorials, he added, “That version of history has been given prominence and authority for far too long. So, I propose that we allow locales to make their own decisions about the monuments and war memorials in their jurisdiction.”

The bill on localities will be sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. The bill on the Lee statute will be sponsored by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton.

Northam’s announcement comes after nationwide tensions over Confederate memorials reached a boiling point in Virginia with a 2017 white nationalist protest in Charlottesville that left one woman dead.

The Richmond City Council on Monday asked the state for authority to decide the fate of its Confederate iconography.

Northam’s package on the issue, sponsored by leaders of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, toes the line between groups that want to see the statues and memorials preserved as symbols of history and heritage, and those who argue that they are vestiges of a racist past that still has supporters.

In an interview with The Associated Press, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, indicated that Confederate statues are not a top priority for his caucus, but he warned about setting a precedent.

“We could go after Woodrow Wilson before this is over. I mean, he was one of the biggest racist presidents in U.S. history,” Gilbert said of the 28th president. “Where this ends, I don’t know.”

Alongside members of the Legislative Black Caucus, Northam also announced funding for the maintenance and improvement of African American cemeteries, which Northam said have suffered from racism.

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, will sponsor legislation with Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, to support the maintenance of African American cemeteries. McQuinn said the money will help bring the “appropriate dignity and respect that all sacred burial grounds are due.”

Northam is also proposing preservation of historic sites, like the Freedom House museum in Alexandria, which will receive $2.4 million for preservation and expansion. Northam is also asking for funding for new highway markers on African American history and other “diverse stories.”

The museum, located in a building that once was headquarters for a large slave trading firm, says it uses first-person accounts of enslaved people and details from the business to detail “the harsh reality of the domestic slave trade and Alexandria’s role.” The Northern Virginia Urban League now owns the building.

“We have more than 2,700 markers around the state, but only 300 of them tell stories about African Americans or fewer tell stories about other groups in Virginia,” such as LGBTQ people or Asian Americans, Northam said.



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