While Democrats in Virginia are studiously avoiding Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed ban on modern sporting rifles, commonly-owned ammunition magazines, and suppressors during the current legislative session, they’ve still been pushing a number of gun control bills that aren’t as high-profile ahead of November’s elections in the state.
One bill brought by Sen. Creigh Deeds would have required background checks on all firearm rentals at gun ranges. The measure was authored by Deeds after two suicides at a Richmond-area gun range last year, but many gun store owners and operators objected to the legislation, pointing out that they’re already working to ensure that troubled individuals aren’t using rented firearms to take their own 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.
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, who made the motion to re-refer the bill to committee, said one of the suicide victims’ families lives in her district, so she is “very empathetic to finding a path forward.”
“It feels good to pass a bill that’s addressing an issue we’re concerned about,” Dunnavant said. “But it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t get the job done.”
Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who sponsored the legislation, urged his colleagues to stick with the bill.
“I would argue that the bill, the way it’s drafted, will be effective,” Deeds said. “It can’t bring any of these young people back… but hopefully it can prevent some tragedies.”
Three Democrats — Sens. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, and Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, voted with the Senate’s 18 Republicans to defeat the measure.
Deeds acknowledged his proposal would require some “rejiggering” by the State Police, because federal law doesn’t require background checks for gun rentals. Because of that limitation, the state would essentially have to create its own background check process for gun rentals, one that would pull in state-level information on criminal convictions and mental health history.
The fact that Deeds’ proposal is unworkable without creating a new statewide background check system was probably the deal-breaker for those Democrats who ended up voting against the bill. Virginia facing a budget shortfall thanks to the coronavirus-related closures ordered by Gov. Ralph Northam, and giving more money to police (regardless of the reason) isn’t a high priority for many in the Democratic caucus.
Others, like Sen. Chap Petersen, who voted against Northam’s gun ban bill last year, were in favor of Deeds’ proposal. Petersen says that lawmakers have a responsibility to ensure that the gun control laws that have passed can be enforced, and that means adding to the bureaucracy already in place. More gun control begets more gun control, in other words.
I’m glad that Petersen’s position didn’t carry the day in the state Senate, and I’d encourage him to think about whether or not the gun control laws that were signed by Northam last year are really worth enforcing in the first place. Repeal would be a much better option in my opinion, though it’s not likely to happen with Democrats in complete control of the state legislature. The defeat of one gun control bill is good news for Virginia gun owners, but we need to be working on taking back the House of Delegates and statewide offices like governor and attorney general in this November’s elections to make repeal possible.
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