Gun control debate resumes after two mass shootings in Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – The General Assembly will return to Richmond in the new year with a renewed focus on gun control after Virginia suffered two high-profile mass shootings in less than two weeks.

With a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a Democratic majority in the state Senate, the debate is likely to stall.

Earlier this month, a University of Virginia student reportedly shot and killed three football players after a field trip. Most recently, a Walmart supervisor killed six of his employees in a Chesapeake store.

Officials say the Walmart shooter legally bought his handgun just hours before pulling the trigger. The revelation is leading some to call for a required waiting period after gun purchases in Virginia to deter rash crimes. Only a handful of states currently require a “cooling off period” of between 72 hours and 14 days before a buyer can take home a newly purchased firearm, according to the Giffords Law Center.

Delegate Rip Sullivan (D-Fairfax) said he would support a mandatory wait.

“We have tried unsuccessfully to pass such bills for the past few years. I am hopeful, always hopeful, that our colleagues across the aisle will be able to see the wisdom behind such laws,” Sullivan said.

Virginia Citizens Defense League President Phil Van Cleave is opposed.

“It’s not worth thinking about at all. People have been killed waiting for their gun to end a wait. It can be cut in both directions. It can both cost lives and prevent something,” said Van Cleave.

It’s one of several proposals that could be presented at the 2023 session, which begins in January. In a statement last week, House Democrats announced plans to support legislation that would increase industry accountability, add age restrictions on certain weapons, ban the use of ghost guns and create restrictions on high-capacity magazines.

“If only we can avoid one of these tragedies, and even if we never know, it will have been worth it,” Sullivan said when asked if any of those bills could have prevented the recent mass shootings in Virginia.

These plans are still short on details. Sullivan said bills are still being worked out.

For example, it is not yet clear how many cartridges or bullets a magazine could hold under the legislation, or at what age the legislature would limit gun purchases. Sullivan said Virginians could expect Democrats to “ask questions” about teens buying “AR-style guns.”

Van Cleave said the proposals were unconstitutional and would not survive legal challenges, particularly after the US Supreme Court struck down a centuries-old New York law restricting concealed carry. Furthermore, he said none of these proposed reforms prevented the recent shootings in Virginia.

“It’s all pure stuff that gets knocked down in court, even if they manage to pass it,” Van Cleave said. “There’s no way you’re going to stop anyone from ignoring the law and killing people, killing people. The best thing you can do is make sure people can protect themselves.”

Asked to intervene last week, Gov. Glenn Youngkin told reporters it was too early to discuss gun control reforms as investigations are ongoing.

“Once the facts and circumstances are well understood, we have the opportunity to take action. Today we must continue to focus on families,” Youngkin said.

In an email Monday, Youngkin’s spokesman Macaulay Porter did not directly respond to specific questions about gun control proposals. Instead, she referenced Youngkins’ previous comments, adding that the government will launch an agenda to tackle Virginia’s mental health crisis.

During his campaign last year, Youngkin was not endorsed by the National Rifle Association, although the group endorsed other statewide GOP candidates.

Earlier this year, Republicans in the General Assembly attempted to overturn several gun control reforms signed under former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, but Youngkin included none of those bills on his legislative agenda for the 2022 session.

Virginia’s new red flag law has been a frequent GOP target since it was passed in 2020. Sullivan, who sponsored the law, said Democrats will oppose any new effort to reverse it and seek to improve implementation with federal funding provided by a bipartisan Gun Violence Prevention Act, passed earlier this year passed by Congress.

Sullivan earlier this month sent a letter to Jackson Miller, director of the Department of Criminal Justice Services, asking if the Youngkin administration had applied for funding. He said that based on the current formula, Virginia received $5,081,671 for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, but the state must apply by December 19, 2022 to receive the money.

Sullivan said he hasn’t heard back and Youngkin’s office didn’t respond to questions about the status of the application Monday.