By Senator Lynwood Lewis
The 2020 Virginia General Assembly continues to move at a breakneck pace, with a record number of bills having been filed. We have seen a forty percent increase in proposed legislation this year. We still have the same sixty day timeframe within which to complete our work. I have submitted thirty-four pieces of legislation along with sixteen budget amendments which will need to work their way through the committee process and the Senate Finance Committee.
I want to take a moment to discuss the gun issue which has so unfortunately and, in my view, unnecessarily divided our Commonwealth. Anyone who has attended one of my town hall meetings or heard me speak as recently as the Eastern Shore Chamber Breakfast in December, which was reported in the local newspapers and on the radio, knows my focus has been on what I call access issues. That is trying to make sure that the filter between those whom we all agree should not have access to firearms is a tight one. This includes a robust system of background checks as well emergency risk protection orders, also known as “red flag” laws. I have supported those measures during this General Assembly Session and have worked with other members of my Caucus to improve upon the original legislation. We have now passed a background check bill (SB70) and also a red flag law bill (SB240). You can view the Senate’s final version of these bills by going to lis.virginia.gov. I would suggest that everyone interested in the subject take a look at the Senate’s final version of these bills rather than trying to discern what they mean by Facebook and other social media.
The background check bill applies only to commercial transfers and concealed weapons permit holders are exempt. We worked to improve this from the original bill which provided that background checks would apply to any transfer. This was tremendously problematic and through some hard work and persuasion we were able to have it apply to purely commercial transactions. Similarly, the “red flag” law was also greatly improved upon from its introduced form. This is the way the legislative process is supposed to work. There is now no simultaneous search warrant issued with the protective order. Either a Commonwealth’s Attorney or two police officers must execute an affidavit to a judge or magistrate in order to obtain one of these orders. Citizens cannot. In addition, we have added the extra police officer who must swear out the affidavit, and we have placed in a requirement that the police officers must consult with a Commonwealth’s Attorney before obtaining a protective order. The person is entitled to a hearing within fourteen days and the level of proof required for obtaining a full protective order is “clear and convincing”, this is the civil version of beyond a reasonable doubt. It is a very high standard of proof. I was disappointed that I was unable to have an appointment of counsel for indigent defendants included in this version but I will work throughout this session to have it included and, if unsuccessful, will attempt to include it in my legislation next year. Also, it is a class one misdemeanor for any person to provide false information to law enforcement in the context of the emergency protective order process. The average gun owner will likely never realize that these laws have been passed but I believe that they will advance the cause of public safety in individual cases across this Commonwealth about which we may never know. These bills will go over to the House and will likely return to us in a very different form. So the legislative process still has some distance to go, but I will be hard pressed to support a version of either bill that is substantially different from the version we have just passed in the Senate.
We also passed SB35, which is a local option ordinance bill allowing localities to ban firearms in government buildings and in certain public permitted events. This is completely optional on the part of a locality. Since we have such vastly different views on firearms across the Commonwealth it only makes sense that each locality should be able to reflect the wants and needs of its citizenry by adopting firearm policies narrowly limited to property and events under the control of the locality. I would not expect any locality on the Eastern Shore to enact any ordinance, however, Norfolk may very well. If they chose to it would certainly be an opportunity for discussion on the community’s position at the local level. The bill which rightfully had everyone very concerned (SB16) never even made it out of committee. That is why I caution everyone who was so worried about the bill that anybody can introduce a bill — whether it passes or not is a completely different question. There is no Senate bill now regarding the banning of assault rifles. The Governor’s bill on this topic was introduced in the House of Delegates and is being carried by Delegate Mark Levine. As I stated publicly before the Session and as was reported in Eastern Shore news media I will not be supporting any type of ban legislation whether on a particular type of firearm or a particular type of magazine. In addition Senator Howell has proposed SB581 which is very problematic and further highlights the cultural divide in our Commonwealth. That bill has an unintended consequence making it very difficult for our young people between the ages of fourteen and eighteen to have access to firearms for hunting and other purposes. Unless that legislation is amended in some significant way I will not be voting in favor of it. Senator Saslaw put in a bill which would raise the legal age for firearm purchases to twenty-one. As a general philosophical approach to legislation which seeks to increase the age threshold from eighteen to twenty-one I have a problem, since we allow eighteen year olds to vote and in all other respects be treated as adult members of society. I do not believe that we can pick and choose for which things they should be held accountable as adults. We should have had that discussion decades ago when we decided to treat eighteen year olds as full adults. Unless we want to have that larger discussion again, I will resist increasing the age to twenty-one.
I am sure that there will be other firearm-related bills that come before us, however, at least at the present time these are the most controversial that I believe we have addressed. Again, I would encourage everyone to look and read the actual bill itself before making assumptions or relying on second-, third-, and fourth-hand information as to what legislation is being passed here in Richmond.
We will be in Session until Saturday March 7. As always I encourage people to contact us on any issues of concern our email remains [email protected] and our phone number while in Richmond is (804) 698-7506. This includes if there are any questions regarding legislation mentioned in this week’s column. And as always we encourage everyone to visit if at all possible and to use our office to facilitate your time here in your Capitol.