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VA Assault Weapons Ban Fails In Senate Committee

A young man in a suit and tie has his tongue hanging out of his open mouth as he points to a sign opposing an assault weapons ban that reads "I'm a nurse. I save lives, let me protect mine."
Gun rights groups celebrated in the halls of the General Assembly building after lawmakers voted to block an assault weapons ban for the year. (Photo: Crixell Matthews)

Lawmakers blocked an anticipated ban on assault weapons Monday when several Democrats unexpectedly sided with Republican state senators. Governor Ralph Northam had made the ban a priority this year. He’s been working to tighten Virginia’s gun laws in the wake of the mass shooting at Virginia Beach on May 31, which left 12 people dead.

Cheers erupted in the halls of the State Capitol as lawmakers in a Senate Judiciary Committee voted to put the brakes on an assault weapons ban in Virginia, at least for the year. 

Four Democrats broke ranks with their party to stop the measure, sending it out for the State Crime Commission to study.  

It would have barred the sale or purchase of assault weapons after 2021. And it would have outlawed the possession of silencers and magazines that hold more than 12 rounds. 

“The pistol that I carry, carries a 17-round magazine,” said Candy Eubank, a competitive shooter who celebrated the vote. “And I carry it for personal protection.”

Eubank said the bill failed to specify what constitutes an assault weapon. She said she believes that’s because there is no clear definition.

“To restrict high-capacity magazines and any firearm that can have a detachable magazine pretty much eliminates all firearms that we could use to protect ourselves,” Eubank said.

Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) introduced the bill this session. He said the Federal government successfully banned a number of specific semiautomatic firearms during a temporary ban in the 90’s, and Virginia could have done the same. 

“I fear there’s going to be a mass murder between now in the next year, possibly more than one and I feel like we could have saved some lives,” Levine said.

Lori Haas has spent more than a decade fighting to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Her daughter, Emily, was shot twice and survived the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that left 32 dead.   

“It’s been proven by data that these are weapons of choice of mass shooters,” Haas said. “They increase the lethality. They increase the death toll. And the damage they do to the human body is indescribable.”

Haas said she was disgusted by lawmakers’ backpedaling on the issue.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous that Democrats walked back on this issue when it got them the majority in November,” Haas said.

Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) was one of four Democrats who voted to put the bill on hold for the year.

“There’s no question that guns were a big campaign issue for Democrats this past November,” Deeds said. “There’s no question about that. But the words still matter. You still have to get it right.”

Deeds said he was also worried that the definition of an assault weapon in the bill was too broad, and might unintentionally include other firearms. He said he still supports an assault weapons ban in some form. 

“I just didn’t think we could afford to spend the time necessary to fix this bill,” he said.

A spokesperson for Governor Ralph Northam said he expressed disappointment but he’s proud of several other gun safety measures that have advanced this legislative session. Those measures include universal background checks and a “red flag” law that would allow authorities to temporarily take a person’s guns if they’re deemed a threat to themselves or others.

“We’ll be back next year,” the spokesperson said.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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