Virginia Dems kill bill lowering penalties for carry violations

Seth Perlman

While Virginia Republicans now hold a slim majority in the state House of Delegates thanks to the red wave election last November, the state Senate elections won’t take place until next year, and in the meantime Democrats still have control of that body, albeit by a 21-19 margin.

That means that any pro-2A pieces of legislation that make it out of the Republican-controlled House still face long odds in the state Senate, because while there might be a couple of rural Democrats who would be willing to vote for the bills if they get to the floor, Democratic leadership can assign these bills to unfriendly committees where they can be killed off before the full Senate has a chance to consider them.

That ended up being the fate of HB 11, authored by freshman Republican Del. Tim Anderson, which would have reduced the penalties for concealed carry violations to a civil fine for a first offense, with repeated offenses charged as misdemeanors and not felonies, as is currently the case. Despite data from Anderson showing that black Virginians are disproportionately arrested and charged with violating the state’s carry laws, the Democrats who comprise the majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee seemed largely uninterested in this particular piece of criminal justice reform when the bill was heard Monday morning.

The bill drew opposition from the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, gun-control advocates and some prosecutors, who argued it would remove a valuable crime-reduction tool. Opponents said Virginia already makes it easy for gun owners to get a concealed carry permit and responsible gun owners should know those rules.

“This bill is a threat to public safety,” Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday morning. “It is harder to fall off a log than it is to get a concealed carry permit.”

Anderson pointed to recent Virginia court data he obtained showing nearly 68 percent of misdemeanor concealed-weapon convictions involved Black defendants. That data showed more than 2,300 convictions covering 2019 and 2020.

The bill picked up a few Democratic votes when it passed the House of Delegates 53-46. It failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 10-5 vote, with Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, joining nine Democrats opposed to it.

Sens. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, both said they would welcome further study of the issue even though they couldn’t support the bill as written.

“I do think we should take this up next year,” Petersen said prior to the committee vote. “I think there’s a lot of issues here in terms of how this law is applied, how consistently it’s applied.”

Petersen has been one of the few Democrats in the Virginia legislature who’s been willing to buck party bosses and vote against gun control measures, including former Gov. Ralph Northam’s sweeping gun and magazine ban, so it’s disappointing to see him kick this particular can down the road until 2023. It’s also infuriating to see the Senate Minority Leader joining Democrats in opposing this bill, though Norment has drawn the ire of 2A groups and fellow Republicans over his (brief) authorship of a gun control bill of his own back in 2019 that would have made it a felony to carry a lawfully-possessed firearm into government buildings.

At the time Norment denied that he was actually in favor of the measure, claiming that he was trying to make a point about gun control but was “probably was too smart by half,” and ended up yanking the proposal a day after it was introduced. I don’t know what reasons Norment will offer for opposing Anderson’s bill, but today’s vote suggests that even if Republicans take control of the state Senate in next year’s elections, it could difficult to shepherd bills like Constitutional Carry through the legislature without a change in Senate leadership.

This was one of the few pro-2A bills that I thought had a real chance at winning bipartisan approval, and indeed, several Democrats crossed the aisle and voted with their Republican colleagues in approving the measure in the House. If HB 11 had made it out of committee I believe we would have seen at least one rural Democrat do the same in the Senate, but unfortunately partisan politics put an untimely end to a bill that would have been a step in the right direction when it comes to respecting our Second Amendment rights and reforming the criminal justice system to focus on violent offenders.