Virginia Dems Advance Background Check Bill, Gun Ban At Polls

Democrats in Virginia are still shying away from pushing Gov. Ralph Northam’s ban on modern sporting rifles, “high capacity” magazines, and legally-owned suppressors in the current legislative session underway in Richmond, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely avoiding the issue of gun control.

Instead of a sweeping ban, the anti-gun politicians are instead using a more targeted approach in restricting the Second Amendment rights of Virginia residents, with both the House of Delegates and State Senate seeing movement on gun control legislation this week.

On the House side, a bill that bans the carrying of firearms within 40 feet of polling locations or other electoral sites was approved along mostly party lines on Monday.

The legislation, House Bill 2081, prohibits any person from knowingly possessing a firearm within 40 feet of any building that’s used as a polling place, including one hour before and one hour after its use as a polling place.

There are exceptions: qualified law-enforcement officers, retired law-enforcement officers, people on private property that are within 40 feet of the polling place, and licensed armed security officers whose job duties are within 40 feet of the polling place.

The bill also restricts people from having a firearm within 40 feet of where the local electoral board meets to determine the results of any election, as well as any place used for a vote recount.

Violation of the legislation, if passed, would be a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Gun control groups are proclaiming that passage of the bill would “ensure the safety of voting,” which is patently absurd. If someone actually has the intent to commit an act of violence at a polling location, I don’t think they’re going to be deterred by the thought of potentially facing a misdemeanor for bringing a gun with them.

Instead, the folks who’ll actually be impacted are those law-abiding gun owners who may not want to leave their gun unattended in their car while they go vote, election workers who may be concerned about walking to their car by themselves amidst a contentious election, and others carrying in lawful self-defense against the type of politically motivated violence this bill purports to stop.

Meanwhile, a state Senate committee has approved a bill that would require gun ranges to conduct background checks before renting a firearm to a customer. The legislation was proposed by Sen. Creigh Deeds, a rural Democrat who was one of those dissenting senators who blocked the passage of Northam’s gun ban bill last year.

Deeds says he proposed the background check bill after a pair of suicides at a Virginia gun range.

Jon-Christian Carroll was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps last year after showing signs of mental health issues. After he came home, he’d been committed to mental health hospitals, his father said.

Carroll, 21, went to a gun range in Hanover County, rented a firearm, and killed himself at the range. That same month, a 27-year-old man took his life at the same gun range after renting a gun. The business didn’t violate any laws by allowing the men to rent a gun.

“The opposition will acknowledge this issue, but it offers no solutions,” said Carroll’s father, Brad.

That’s what Carroll’s parents want to change. They spoke to Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who sponsored a bill to require that gun ranges run background checks on people who want to rent a gun to shoot.

“The situation is that neither of these men would have been able to buy weapons, because of their mental health backgrounds, but they were able to rent a weapon and end their lives,” Deeds said.
As the Roanoke Times points out, less than 1% of all firearm-related suicides take place at a gun range, and that figure includes those who legally own their own firearm as well as those who could pass a background check. These are rare events, in other words, and as one Virginia gun range owner pointed out to lawmakers, most ranges are already working to ensure that those in a mental health crisis aren’t using one of their guns to take their life.

Mitchell Tyler, co-owner of Safeside Tactical, which operates two gun ranges — in Roanoke and Lynchburg — said Safeside has various measures in place to identify potentially troubled people and not rent or sell them firearms, even if those people could pass a background check.

Tyler said Safeside is part of a group made up of more than two dozen gun ranges across the country, and suicide by firearm is often an issue they discuss. He said policies differ by gun ranges. He said some don’t rent to someone who wants to shoot alone, while others only let range members shoot.

“These are difficult conversations to have, and owners all feel a sense of remorse and sadness, the weight of it,” Tyler said.

Safeside’s staff receives training from Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare about the signs someone may exhibit if they’re not doing well mentally. The business also maintains a list of people not to sell to if they came in and were threatening, for example. Customers or family members can also temporarily add someone mentally struggling to a list so Safeside can be on alert if that person comes in trying to get a gun.
Tyler maintains that charging a background check fee for every gun rental would not only increase the cost to consumers, but would add lags and delays for many customers. More than 40% of the background checks conducted by the Virginia State Police in 2020 resulted in delayed responses, which means customers could be waiting for hours or even a couple of days before they could rent a firearm from a gun range.
A bill introduced with the best of intentions doesn’t automatically become a good bill, and unfortunately that’s the case with Deeds’ legislation. The senator understands the problems within the mental health system in Commonwealth of Virginia on a deeper and more personal level than most folks, having lost his son to suicide in 2013 after the a state agency failed to find a bed for the young man. Our inpatient centers are often filled to capacity, and there’s an acute need for better mental health services, particularly for those in the grips of a crisis.
That’s the real way to address the issue of suicide, but fixing the problem and adequately funding the mental health system is going to cost real money. I’d hoped that Gov. Northam’s recently introduced marijuana legalization bill would devote most of the tax revenue generated by sales of legal cannabis to mental health and drug treatment, but instead the governor wants to use the bulk of the money to expand access to pre-school for three and four-year olds because that’s apparently a bigger issue to Democratic focus groups and campaign consultants.
I understand that Deeds views this as a pragmatic step to help reduce suicides, but I think a far better approach is one outlined by Mitchell Tyler; gun ranges and gun stores working on a cooperative and voluntary basis with the mental health community. The issue of suicide is too complex to think that background checks for gun rentals is really going to solve the problem or even meaningfully address it.
Regardless of how Democrats should be addressing these issues, they’ve unfortunately decided that more gun control laws are the answer. Virginia gun owners should be contacting their state legislators to urge them to oppose the measures. Given the Democratic lock on state government, however, I’d also reach out to my local sheriff and see what they think about the enforceability of the proposed carry ban. The constitutionality of such a law is guaranteed a court challenge, but I’d be curious to know how many sheriffs plan on attempting to enforce a ban at or around the polls this November.