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Assault Weapons Ban Fails In Democratic-Controlled Virginia Senate


Lawmakers today blocked a proposed ban on assault weapons in the Virginia state Senate when several Democrats unexpectedly sided with Republicans. Governor Ralph Northam pushed for the ban, saying it was a priority this year. Whittney Evans of member station VPM reports from Richmond.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: 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. 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. Candy Eubank, a competitive shooter, celebrated the vote.

CANDY EUBANK: The pistol that I carry carries a 17-round magazine, and I carry it for personal protection.

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

EUBANK: To restrict high-capacity magazines and any firearm that can have a detachable magazine pretty much eliminates all firearms that we can use to protect ourselves.

EVANS: Democrat Mark Levine introduced the bill this session. He said the federal government successfully banned a number of specific semi-automatic firearms during a temporary ban in the '90s, and Virginia could have done the same.

MARK LEVINE: I fear there's going to be mass murder between now and the next year, possibly more than one. And I feel like we could have saved some lives.

EVANS: 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.

LORI HAAS: It's been proven by data over and over again that these are weapons of choice of mass shooters. They increase the lethality, they increase the death toll, and the damage they do to the human body is indescribable.

EVANS: Haas says she was disgusted by lawmakers backpedaling on the issue.

HAAS: It's ridiculous that Democrats walked back on this issue when it got them the majority in November.

EVANS: Senator Creigh Deeds was one of four Democrats who voted to put the bill on hold for the year.

CREIGH DEEDS: There's no question that guns were a big campaign issue for Democrats this past November, but the words still matter. You still have to get it right.

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

DEEDS: I just didn't think we could afford to spend the time necessary to fix this bill.

EVANS: A spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam says he expressed disappointment but says 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. Gov. Northam promises to reintroduce the assault weapons ban next year.

For NPR News, I'm Whittney Evans in Richmond.