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Virginia Lawmakers Pass On Red Flag Law, Despite GOP Support In Other States

Advocates on both sides of the gun debate came to Richmond for Virginia's special session Tuesday.
Advocates on both sides of the gun debate came to Richmond for Virginia's special session Tuesday. Crixell Matthews/WCVE News

One of the bills Virginia lawmakers hoped would be considered during this week’s special session is what’s called a red flag law. This is legislation that permits police and family members to get a court order to seize guns from someone who’s a danger to themselves or others. But Republicans punted on the law and all new gun-related legislation. On the House floor, Democratic Delegate Richard “RIP” Sullivan ran down a list of Republicans at the federal level who’ve announced support for “Red Flag” laws. 

“This legislation has been endorsed by the likes of Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, Senator Marco Rubio, Vice President Mike Pence and yes, Donald Trump,” said Sullivan.

Trump’s support came as a byproduct of his post-Parkland commission on school safety. The group urged states to pass red flag laws.  

“They’ve been passed on a bipartisan basis all across the country, and I’m hoping we can do that here in Virginia,” Sullivan said.

Seventeen states currently have them. Just this year they were passed in Nevada, Hawaii, Colorado, and New York. Several others were adopted after the Parkland shooting in Florida, including some by GOP-ledstates. Gun control groups like Moms Demand Action hoped Virginia would be next.Ami Neiberger-Miller went to Virginia lawmaker offices to talk about the bill. She says the issue is personal for her. She used to work with military families who lost loved ones to suicide.

“And so often, their stories involved a gun,” Neiberger-Miller said. “And these families felt powerless even though their loved ones were in trouble, that their loved ones needed help, and they knew their loved ones had firearms and they were threatening to hurt themselves.”

Just down the hall, pro-gun advocates with the National Citizens Defense League hudled in and around lawmakers’ offices. 

“It’s very frightening for most gun owners,” said Sean Callahan, who was running his finger down a checklist of other offices to stop by, after meeting with Republican Senator Richard Stuart.

His primary concern with the red flag law: what he views as a lack of due process. And even though a Senate courts of justice committee tried to re-work the bill’s language about when and under what circumstances police could get a search warrant, Callahan is still skeptical.   

“Yeah, none of that is— it’s just, it’s just— again, the opportunity for laws like that to be misused are very high,” Callahan said. He says it could lead to false accusations. 

But the bill’s House sponsor, Delegate Sullivan, argues that wouldn’t happen. He says someone who gives false testimony could be subject to up to a year of jail time. Still, Republicans like Senator Richard Stuart aren’t on board.

“One of our most sacred protections under the constitution is to be safe in our places and our person and not to be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures,” Stuart said. “You give that away under a red flag law, and that’s my concern about it.”

One Republican, Senator Ben Chafin, spoke about the importance of the legislation in January. But on Tuesday, he was quick to say he wouldn’t support it, even with changes. He asked the Crime Commission to study it. Now, the bill will be going to the Crime Commission, along with every piece of legislation proposed during this special session. The commission is tasked with issuing recommendations to lawmakers before they reconvene on November 18th, after general elections.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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