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Virginia lawmakers push gun ownership prerequisite bills to next session

Different caliber guns on display when clients walk in to New American Arms. Photo By Sam Britt/CNS.
Different caliber guns on display when clients walk in to New American Arms. Photo By Sam Britt/CNS.

A measure that would require citizens to demonstrate competence before purchasing a firearm was continued to next year, as lawmakers plan to work on the larger issue about prerequisites to gun ownership. 

This story was reported and written by our media partner Capital News Service

Sen. Angelia Williams Graves, D-Norfolk, introduced Senate Bill 522 to require either demonstration of competence or completion of a gun safety training course within five years of purchase. She sponsored the legislation last year as a delegate but it did not advance from a Republican-led House.

Democratic lawmakers have more successfully resumed their legislative initiatives to regulate firearms and reduce gun violence now that they have a slim majority in both chambers.

The Senate passed the bill on a party-line vote, but on Thursday a House Public Safety subcommittee continued the measure with a letter of recommendation that the state Crime Commission study the policy. 

A panel member noted that it is “an excellent policy,” but other similar bills with firearm ownership prerequisites were also continued as lawmakers examine issues of consistency and constitutionality.

There was confusion during the bill’s Senate committee hearing. Members were unsure over the meaning of “demonstrating competence,” and interpreted it as the ability to demonstrate shooting the gun to the salesman. This is an incorrect interpretation, according to Williams Graves. 

The bill required a citizen to present a certificate of completion from a state-approved organization that provides classes on firearm training. People who use a firearm in the workplace, such as law enforcement, security or the military, would be exempt from the clause because they have demonstrated competence, according to Williams Graves. 

Citizens can currently purchase a firearm with no prior firearm handling experience or training, which makes accidents more likely to occur, Williams Graves said. Future gun owners should be trained on the cleaning, loading and storing of firearms like trained officials, she said.

Members on the panel asked the lawmaker for statistics about accidents due to incompetence. Williams Graves did not have statistics, but responded, “it’s not just about accidental shootings, it’s simply a matter of public safety.”

The day before Williams Graves' bill died, a Richmond City second-grader tooka loaded gun to school. Last year, a 6-year-old shothis teacher in Newport News.

There were 2,486 firearm injuries last year that resulted in an emergency room visit, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The majority of firearm deaths are due to suicide, followed by homicide. Three people died by firearm, on average, every day between 2016-2022, according to VDH. 

Groups such as the Virginia Citizens Defense League oppose the bill. The group held its annual lobby event in January, to contact lawmakers about proposed firearm bills moving through the General Assembly.

“Right now, we've considered ourselves to be in a war against gun rights, against gun owners,” said Phillip Van Cleave, VCDL president. “The Democrats are trying to destroy a basic civil right and we’re having to fight that.” 

Many citizens believe their Second Amendment rights are being infringed upon, according to Van Cleave. 

Many rights are regulated, such as driving or voting, Williams Graves said. 

This is an unwarranted, “apples and oranges” comparison, according to Van Cleave. Any new firearm legislation must align with evidence of prior firearms rulesin order to preserve a constitutional right, according to Van Cleave. 

“It's up to the government to show that the law they have on the books was something that was on the books back in 1791 or somewhere between there and 1866,” Van Cleave said. 

Clara Elliott is a transgender woman whose organization Arm Trans Women provides the LGBTQ+ community with basic firearm training. Transgender and nonbinary people can take a free class, because finances should not be an obstacle to self-protection, she said.

Citizens need firearm safety and training, including safe storage, Elliott said. 

“People should be able to know basic gun safety, and I honestly believe it should be taught in schools as part of the health class curriculum,” Elliott said. 

Elliott’s personal experience to become a firearms instructor was not inclusive, so she wanted to provide the “exact opposite place,” she said.

“We’re such a targeted group right now and have been for a number of years that we need to be able to defend ourselves, we need to be able to defend our families, we need to be able to defend our communities," Elliott said.

 Globally, over 300 transgender and gender diverse people were murdered in a one-year time frame, with almost half of the murders committed by gun, according to the Transgender Murder Monitoring project. That number was higher in the U.S. where 78% of the murders were committed with a firearm, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Lawmakers tackled approximately 50 pieces of firearm-related legislation this session. Measures that have passed both chambers so far include regulations around firearm transfers, child access to a firearm, school notification of safe storage practices, leaving a gun in a vehicle and conduct standards for firearm manufacturers.

The bills still face Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has the option to veto. Democrats don’t have the required two-thirds majority to overturn a veto. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.