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Legislative showdown looms over guns

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Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order banning guns from state office buildings. (Photo by Rachel Beatrice)

RICHMOND, Va. — The political battle over guns in Virginia is shifting to the state Capitol as the General Assembly convenes Wednesday for its 2016 session.

The state’s leading Democrats fired the latest shots: In October, Gov. Terry McAuliffe banned weapons from state buildings. Then last month, Attorney General Mark Herring announced that the commonwealth would no longer recognize concealed handgun permits issued by 25 states that he said do not meet Virginia’s standards.

Those moves outraged Republican legislators. Del. Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah, for example, accused Herring of having a “partisan, political goal of denying law-abiding citizens the right to protect and defend themselves.”

So it’s no surprise that the General Assembly will take up the issue. As of Tuesday, legislators had filed almost 70 bills about firearms, guns or other weapons.

Republicans are sponsoring several measures to expand Virginians’ right to carry weapons. For example, with House Bill 593, Del. Robert Marshall, R-Manassas, seeks to invalidate McAuliffe’s Executive Order 50, which prohibits the carrying of firearms in buildings occupied by executive branch agencies.

Marshall also is carrying HB 83, which would prevent Virginia state employees from enforcing new federal firearms laws, including criminal background checks in gun sales or other transactions.

And Marshall’s HB 79 would allow full-time faculty members at public colleges and universities carry a handgun on campus if they have a concealed weapons permit.

Along the same lines, newly elected Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, is sponsoring HB 761, which “prohibits public institutions of higher education from adopting or enforcing any rules prohibiting a female who possess a valid Virginia concealed handgun permit from carrying a concealed handgun on campus.”

Sen. Thomas Garrett, R-Hadensville, is taking aim at Herring’s decision to reject the concealed handgun permits of more than two dozen states. Under Senate Bill 178, sponsored by Garrett, the General Assembly – not the attorney general – would determine whether Virginia should honor other states’ concealed carry permits.

Democratic legislators, who are in the minority in both the House and Senate, also are sponsoring a bevy of gun-related measures. Generally, they want to make it harder for people to buy or carry firearms.

For instance, Del. Kaye Kory of Falls Church has filed HB 482, which would require background checks on firearms sales at gun shows. Currently, gun-show vendors don’t have to perform such checks unless they are federally licensed gun dealers.

Newly elected Del. John Bell, D-Chantilly, wants to tighten the rules for getting a concealed handgun permit in Virginia. Current law allows applicants to complete an online or video course in firearms training or safety; Bell’s HB 617 would require that the course be taken in person.

Under SB 214, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, and HB 425, by Del. Marcus Simon of Falls Church, Virginians who are in the federal Terrorist Screening Database could not buy or possess guns. (At the federal level, Republicans have opposed such proposals because they say the database is flawed.)

To a large extent, the gun debate at the Virginia Capitol echoes the controversy over firearms in the nation’s capital.

Last week, President Obama, with tears in his eyes, gave a speech lamenting gun violence. He said he was taking executive actions to address the problem by requiring all businesses that sell guns – including at firearms shows – to be licensed and conduct background checks.

Herring, who attended Obama’s announcement, called the president’s action “important steps to promote public safety, prevent gun violence and keep guns away from criminals and other dangerous people.”

Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, criticized Obama’s speech.

“We are all touched by attacks like the one in San Bernardino, and we all grieve for those who have lost so much as a result. But to end this kind of violence, we need to address the real, underlying causes of these attacks,” Wittman said on Facebook.

“Limiting our constitutionally guaranteed rights is never the answer. That is why it’s so important for us to affirmatively protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens by advancing legislation like the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2015.”

That federal legislation would allow anyone with a valid concealed weapons permit from any state to carry firearms “in accordance to restrictions within that state.”

By Rachel Beatrice and Matt Chaney/Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.