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Gun debate dominates Lobby Day as hundreds gather at Virginia Capitol

While standing outside, two women hold signs and flags that say "Guns Save Lives."
Parker Michels-Boyce
For VPM News
Hundreds gathered at the Bell Tower in downtown Richmond for Lobby Day. A range of interests were represented, including gun control opponents, reproductive rights and labor.

After passing through a metal detector on Monday at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Richard McNamara looked down at a piece of paper to check which lawmakers he’d planned to speak with.

“Where is he? One is [state Sen. John S.] Edwards … and oh, [state Sen. Joe] Morrissey,” said McNamara, who drove in from Floyd County. He was among hundreds of Virginians who headed to the General Assembly for Lobby Day, when citizens speak to lawmakers on issues important to them.

Opponents of gun control remain the most visible on Lobby Day.

In 2020, the event drew more than 20,000 people to Richmond, according to media reports at the time. But on Monday, about 200 people gathered at a rally organized by Virginia Citizens Defense League, despite a split Legislature dampening prospects for the passage of significant gun legislation.

“What I was going to talk to the representatives about was these anti-gun bills that are being proposed and are restricting our Second Amendment rights,” said McNamara, attired in a dark suit and carrying a briefcase with an orange “Guns Save Lives” sticker affixed.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,174 people were killed in Virginia by firearms in 2020, up slightly from 1,025 in 2019. In response, Democrats in the House and Senate have proposed more restrictions on who can purchase guns and what types are legal to buy.

But gun safety advocates were lobbying on Monday, too.

“Gun violence is preventable,” said Lori Haas, the Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “Access to firearms by children is deadly. We lock up poisons, alcohol, prescription drugs, why not firearms?”

Bills regarding how firearms must be locked or stored are among several proposed by Democrats in the General Assembly.

Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News) has proposed a bill that would direct the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, a nonpartisan government agency, to study “the social, physical, emotional, and economic effects of gun violence” in Virginia.

In a 2019 report — in the wake of a mass shooting in Virginia Beach — the Virginia Crime Commission said it was difficult to recommend policy changes because there wasn’t enough data to draw upon.

“If we could just say the word, they could go out there and do what they're uniquely qualified to do. But it does take the majority party to be able to say [yes] for them to go do it,” Price said.

Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax) also has sponsored legislation seeking to restrict the sale or transfer of assault-style weapons, as well as ban large-capacity firearm magazines.

Republicans, however, have prefilled at least twobills that would remove the necessity to obtain a permit for concealed carry. And Sens. Dave LaRock (R-Loudoun) and Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) have each proposed legislation that weakens local authority to prohibit possessing or carrying guns. Obenshain’s SB 1236 would enable more people to take a legally obtained firearm to work, provided it’s kept in a locked vehicle.

Philip Van Cleave speaking and pointing
Parker Michels-Boyce
For VPM News
Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, speaks during the organization's Monday rally at the Bell Tower in downtown Richmond.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun group that brings many of its members and supporters to the Virginia State Capitol, rallied Monday in support of its legislative agenda, which largely opposes bills proposed by Democrats and supports ones filed by Republicans.

A notable exception is one bill from Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) on which the VCDL is neutral. That legislation, HB 2141, would create a misdemeanor for firearm owners who allow minors to possess a firearm if it is used in a crime.

Legislators have expressed doubt that significant gun legislation would be passed due to a divided General Assembly: Republicans hold sway in the House of Delegates, while Democrats control the state Senate.

“At the end of this session, what the session is going to be judged on is not necessarily what we passed, but what we stopped,” said Del. Tim Anderson (R-Virginia Beach) during the VCDL rally.

A small group of gun owners in attendance weren’t actually lobbying on Monday, saying they preferred to remain outside government buildings since firearms are not allowed inside.

Anastasia Reissis of Front Royal stood outside the Supreme Court of Virginia with her “semi-automatic snub-nosed AK-47” during the VCDL rally. In order to go inside, Reissis said she planned to use a VCDL service to store her weapon.

“I just wanted to come full-force, you know?” Reissis said. “And then just go in.”

VPM News wants to hear your responses to one question: What do you want to learn about the most during the 2023 General Assembly session?

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.