(Reprinted from BEARING ARMS)
By Cam Edwards | 5:31 PM on November 21, 2023
AP Photo/Steve Helber
After Democrats narrowly captured both chambers of the General Assembly earlier this month, the conventional wisdom was that they’d use their slim one-seat majorities in both chambers to nibble at the right to keep and bear arms instead of taking a huge bite out of our Second Amendment rights. Why push hard for something like a ban on so-called assault weapons when Gov. Glenn Youngkin is almost certain to veto it and the last big effort at imposing a gun ban resulted in Republicans winning every statewide office and capturing control of the House of Delegates just two years ago?
The smart move would have been for Democrats to lie low on gun control, and there were plenty of signs that party leaders were doing just that, including Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s introductory video to her 2025 gubernatorial campaign. In the video, Spanberger hit Republicans on abortion and “book bans”, while never once mentioning her own support for banning commonly owned semi-automatic rifles.
But when Democratic legislators unveiled their top priorities for the 2024 session this week, they threw caution to the wind and gave the GOP a gift by including a gun ban as one of the most important items on their to-do list. Bills from Del. Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor for anyone to import, sell, manufacture, purchase, possess, transport or transfer an assault firearm. Notably, the bill includes exceptions for any firearm that is antique, permanently inoperable, manually operated by bolt, pump, lever or slide action or manufactured before July 1, 2024.
HB 2 and SB 2 are nearly identical in their language, including a brand new definition of an “assault firearm”. Existing state statute defines the term as “any semi-automatic center-fire rifle or pistol which expels single or multiple projectiles by action of an explosion of a combustible material and is equipped at the time of the offense with a magazine which will hold more than 20 rounds of ammunition or designed by the manufacturer to accommodate a silencer or equipped with a folding stock.”
That’s a very different and in many ways a far more narrow definition than what’s found in other state-level bans on so-called assault weapons. Any gun that doesn’t have a folding stock or a threaded barrel can only be defined as an “assault weapon” if it’s used in conjunction with a magazine that can hold more than 20 rounds. Most “assault weapon” bans define the prohibited arms as being able to accept a detachable magazine capable of holding more than a particular number of rounds (most typically ten but a number that varies from state to state), but that’s not the case with Virginia’s definition. Similarly, most other state-level bans include a wide variety of features that can turn a legal rifle into a prohibited item; barrel shrounds, flash suppressors, pistol grips or a forward grip, and even bayonet lugs… just to name a few. Virginia’s current definition contains only two features, and even a rifle with a telescoping or adjustable stock isn’t considered an “assault firearm.” All that would change if Helmer and Deeds get their way. Instead of that relatively simple (though still utterly arbitrary) definition, the pair (with the help of gun control activists, I’m sure) have come up with something that looks much closer to existing definitions in anti-gun states like New York and California. “Assault firearm” means any: 1. A semi-automatic center-fire rifle or pistol which that expels single or multiple projectiles by action of an explosion of a combustible material and is equipped at the time of the offense with a magazine which will hold more than 20 rounds of ammunition or designed by the manufacturer to accommodate a silencer or equipped with a folding stock with a fixed magazine capacity in excess of 10 rounds;
2. A semi-automatic center-fire rifle that expels single or multiple projectiles by action of an explosion of a combustible material that has the ability to accept a detachable magazine and has one of the following characteristics: (i) a folding, telescoping, or collapsible stock; (ii) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the rifle; (iii) a second handgrip or a protruding grip that can be held by the non-trigger hand; (iv) a grenade launcher; (v) a flare launcher; (vi) a sound suppressor; (vii) a flash suppressor; (viii) a muzzle brake; (ix) a muzzle compensator; (x) a threaded barrel capable of accepting (a) a sound suppressor, (b) a flash suppressor, (c) a muzzle brake, or (d) a muzzle compensator; or (xi) any characteristic of like kind as enumerated in clauses (i) through (x);
3. A semi-automatic center-fire pistol that expels single or multiple projectiles by action of an explosion of a combustible material that has the ability to accept a detachable magazine and has one of the following characteristics: (i) a folding, telescoping, or collapsible stock; (ii) a second handgrip or a protruding grip that can be held by the non-trigger hand; (iii) the capacity to accept a magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip; (iv) a shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to hold the pistol with the non-trigger hand without being burned; (v) a threaded barrel capable of accepting (a) a sound suppressor, (b) a flash suppressor, (c) a barrel extender, or (d) a forward handgrip; or (vi) any characteristic of like kind as enumerated in clauses (i) through (v);
4. A semi-automatic shotgun that expels single or multiple projectiles by action of an explosion of a combustible material that has one of the following characteristics: (i) a folding, telescoping, or collapsible stock; (ii) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the shotgun; (iii) the ability to accept a detachable magazine; (iv) a fixed magazine capacity in excess of seven rounds; or (v) any characteristic of like kind as enumerated in clauses (i) through (iv); or
5. A shotgun with a magazine that will hold more than seven rounds of the shortest ammunition for which it is chambered. If Republicans play this right (always a big “if” in my home state), they could easily put Democrats on the defensive over this bill. Heck, by the time the 2024 legislative session gets underway in January the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Virginia in its jurisdiction) could have ruled that bans on so-called assault weapons violate the Second Amendment. It’s been almost a year since oral arguments were heard in Bianchi v. Brown, and a decision could come down at any time.
Even if the federal appellate court hasn’t issued its ruling when the 2024 session kicks off, the GOP still has a solid case to make to those critical independent voters who are more worried about violent crime and public safety than they are committed to any particular “solution”. While the ban grandfathers in existing owners, we all know that Democrats aren’t content to let those “battlefield weapons of war” remain in the hands of lawful citizens. This is the first step towards banning the possession of lawfully purchased firearms, and lawful gun owners are the intended target of these bills, not the repeat offenders who are driving violent crime in cities like Richmond and Petersburg.
Bans on semi-automatic firearms are constitutionally unsound in general, but the ban proposed by Creigh Deeds and Dan Helmer is politically unwise as well. It stands almost no chance of becoming law, but it still serves as a clear reminder to Virginia gun owners of the stakes in both the 2024 federal elections and our statewide elections in 2025.
The Democrats’ failed attempt at an “assault weapons” ban in 2020 was a big reason why Virginia Republicans had such a good year in 2021, and their renewed push to pass a gun ban in 2024 will still be on the minds of those same voters two years from now. If they were smart, Virginia’s Democratic leadership would have played small ball on guns this session, but I guess their antipathy towards gun ownership runs deeper than their ability to think strategically. That should be helpful to Republicans, so long as they don’t shoot themselves in the foot (metaphorically speaking) with their own messaging in defense of our Second Amendment rights next session.