New gun legislation, in part propelled by the Dec. 14 mass shooting that claimed 26 lives in a Connecticut elementary school, will come before the Virginia General Assembly in the session that convenes Jan. 9.
As in other states and at the federal level, much of the debate will focus on banning so-called assault weapons, closing background-check loopholes and limiting the availability of high-capacity magazines.
Meanwhile, some pro-gun politicians have called for arming school employees, and the National Rifle Association issued a statement Friday that urged armed guards in all schools.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a state group that bills itself as a more aggressive defender of the Second Amendment than the NRA, has vowed to fight new gun-control efforts in Virginia.
Gun laws vary vastly by state, a patchwork system of regulation, terminology and definitions that critics say fuels the supply of weapons to criminals and limits the efficacy of measures taken in states with strong gun-control laws.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the nation's most ardent gun-control groups, ranks states' gun laws on a point system that assigns high scores to states with stringent gun laws and low scores to those with few restrictions.
Last year, while Virginia scored in the top half, ranking 19th with a score of 12 points out of a possible 100, it was deemed by the campaign to have "weak gun laws that help feed the illegal gun market, allow the sale of guns without background checks and put children at risk," according to the Brady Campaign score card. Only 11 states scored more than 25 points on the Brady scale, and 31 states scored lower than Virginia, though the point difference was slight.
By comparison, Connecticut ranked fifth on the Brady list.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a national legal nonprofit that compiles information on gun laws and advocates for "smart gun laws," gave Virginia's regulations a "D."
"We've don't have strong gun laws," said Andrew Goddard, president of the Virginia Center for Public Safety. His son Colin was shot four times during the Virginia Tech killings in 2007 and now works for the Brady Campaign.
For Goddard, some of the recent political stirrings are encouraging. He added that most Americans, for example, including the majority of gun owners and NRA members, support measures requiring criminal background checks for all gun purchases.
"We're not trying to sell these ideas to the American people," Goddard said. "The American people are already there."
Stronger regulations at the federal level would provide a better baseline standard, he added, though the gun lobby's influence has made that historically difficult.
"The misguided lawmakers think that if they go against the NRA's wishes, they'll be out of office," Goddard said. He added that the best possibilities for meaningful gun regulation could be at the state level, where the NRA has also been successful nationwide in broadening access to concealed-carry permits and promoted "stand your ground" laws.
Here's how Virginia's laws compare with Connecticut's, according to information compiled from the Brady Campaign, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Virginia and Connecticut state police agencies, and state statutes:
Virginia: No permit is required to buy a rifle, pistol or shotgun, though you must be 18 to buy a rifle or shotgun and 21 to buy a handgun pursuant to federal law. Licensed firearm dealers are required to submit information for background checks prior to selling a gun. However, private sellers, including at gun shows, are not required to submit information for a background check. This is what critics call the "gun-show loophole."
Connecticut: Background checks are required for all transfers of handguns between individuals other than licensed firearm dealers and for all firearm transfers at gun shows. Private transfers of "long guns" such as rifles and shotguns outside of gun shows do not require a check. To buy a handgun, purchasers must be 21 and must first obtain either a state concealed-carry permit, which requires local police or elected official approval and a training course, among other stipulations, or a "handgun-eligibility certificate," which carries a host of restrictions.
Virginia: Carrying rifles or pistols with magazines that hold more than 20 rounds, or a shotgun that holds more than seven rounds of the longest ammunition for which it is chambered, is prohibited in public places only in the cities of Alexandria, Chesapeake, Fairfax, Falls Church, Newport News, Norfolk, Richmond and Virginia Beach and in the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Henrico, Loudoun and Prince William. Those provisions do not apply to police, licensed security guards and military, or anyone who holds a valid concealed-handgun permit as well as hunters or recreational shooters at a range.
Connecticut: Has no law regulating large-capacity magazines.
Virginia: State law defines an assault weapon as "any semi-automatic, center-fire rifle or pistol" equipped with a magazine that holds more than 20 rounds or is "designed by the manufacturer to accommodate a silencer or equipped with a folding stock."
The only restrictions on such weapons, apart from the high-capacity magazine law, apply to non-U.S. citizens or those who are not "lawfully admitted for permanent residence." Those individuals are barred from possessing, carrying or transporting any assault firearm.
Connecticut: The state defines an assault weapon as "any selective-fire firearm capable of fully automatic, semi-automatic or burst fire at the option of the user or any of the following specified semi-automatic firearms," and names nearly three dozen specific models. Other characteristics of weapons that designate them as assault weapons are folding or telescoping stocks, pistol grips, bayonet mounts, flash suppressors and a grenade launcher, among others. Individuals are prohibited from possessing such weapons unless it was purchased prior to July 1, 1994, and the owner was eligible to buy it at that time, "lawfully possessed it" prior to Oct. 1, 1993, and is not in violation of other state firearm laws.
A semi-automatic Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle, which is descended from the military-issued M-16 but has some significant differences, is believed to have been used in the Connecticut school killings. It was not covered under the ban. News reports have indicated the shooter, Adam Lanza, used 30-round magazines for the weapon.
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