Virginia Votes To Repeal Restricted Gun Buying Law

Twenty years ago, Virginia had a not-so-flattering reputation as a haven for illegal gun runners. Traffickers would buy batches of guns legally in the state, and sell them on the black market. With the Virginia guns turning up at crime scenes up and down the Eastern seaboard, the state legislature decided it was time to act — a law was passed to limit gun purchases to one a month. But gun rights activists have fought to overturn it, and on Monday, the Virginia Senate approved legislation to repeal it. Bill Sizemore, reporter for The Virginian-Pilot, has been following this effort in the state legislature, and talks with Robert Siegel about what propelled it this time around.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Richmond, Virginia, the state Senate voted today to repeal that state's one-a-month limit on gun purchases. That limit was created in 1993 in an effort to solve a problem that reached far beyond Virginia's borders, and it has long been opposed by Virginia gun rights advocates. Their political position improved last November. Republicans took the Senate, and now both chambers of the state legislature, as well as Governor Bob McDonnell, are Republican, and all support repeal.

Reporter Bill Sizemore has been covering this story for The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, and he joins us from Richmond. And let's start with the origins of the Virginia one-gun-a-month limit and what was going on in the 1990s that led to it.

BILL SIZEMORE: Well, Virginia was known as a real haven for gun traffickers. There was a lot of evidence at the time that a lot of the guns that were being used in crimes in New York City and other cities of the Northeast originated from Virginia. This became, you know, a major issue such that then-Governor Doug Wilder made it one of his primary legislative initiatives to pass a law saying, you know, you can only buy one handgun at a time per month.

SIEGEL: Per month.

SIZEMORE: And he succeeded. The law was passed and supporters of that law have said over the years, you know, well, this succeeded. It made a significant dent in the numbers of guns that were turning up and used in crimes that originated from Virginia.

SIEGEL: Yeah. It was a pretty nasty reputation that Virginia had as the state that was providing handguns to drug lords and gangs up and down the East Coast. What argument is made in defense of repealing this, which seems to be what's going to happen now?

SIZEMORE: Yes, it certainly does. The gun rights advocates basically say that the law has outlived its usefulness. They say that it has essentially been rendered moot by the national system of criminal background checks that is now in place. Anybody that goes to buy a gun is subject to a criminal background check and they say that that is going to catch anybody with a criminal record and stop them from buying a gun.

SIEGEL: And opponents of repeal, how do they rebut that claim?

SIZEMORE: They say, well, that's true as far as it goes, but it doesn't eliminate the possibility of straw purchases. What that means is someone with a criminal record simply recruits somebody without a criminal record and that person goes into the store, and once this law is repealed, they'll be able to buy an unlimited number of guns and simply turn them over to the gun trafficker.

SIEGEL: Now, Virginia is a state where there's a great deal of gun ownership and I assume the Republican legislators and the governor figure the public opinion is on their side with these moves.

SIZEMORE: I think they do. Virginia certainly is a big gun-owning state, particularly in the more rural areas where hunting is a, you know, longstanding tradition. You know, in the more urban areas where crime has been a problem, I think you find more support for gun control, but at the moment, the gun enthusiasts certainly seem to have the upper hand.

SIEGEL: Now, you've reported that while the one gun a month limit may be getting more headlines it's not the only gun issue that gun rights advocates are pressing for. What else is on their agenda with this favorable legislature and statehouse?

SIZEMORE: Yes. There's a long list of pro-gun bills this year, probably the longest in recent memory. One of the bills in the hopper, for instance, is one that the gun rights advocates call the constitutional carry bill. This would allow any lawful owner of a firearm to carry it concealed without getting a permit, which would overturn a longtime law in Virginia which says that you can only carry a concealed weapon with a permit.

SIEGEL: And passage there also seems possible, likely? What would you say?

SIZEMORE: I would say possible. I would say at least a 50-50 chance at this point.

SIEGEL: OK. Bill Sizemore, thanks for talking with us.

SIZEMORE: Sure thing.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Bill Sizemore of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper speaking to us from Richmond, Virginia.

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