Democratic lawmakers in Virginia are advancing legislation to ban the sale of assault weapons and the possession of high-capacity magazines despite fierce opposition from gun owners.
A state House committee on Friday advanced legislation backed by Gov. Ralph Northam to ban the sale of certain semiautomatic firearms, including popular AR-15 style rifles, and silencers and prohibit the possession of magazines that hold more than 12 rounds.
It's the most ambitious measure proposed by Northam and one that's met the most pushback, including from members of his own party. Gun owners packed the committee room Friday and erupted in protest when the measured passed. Capitol Police cleared the committee room of almost every spectator after the vote.
Heated debates over guns have dominated this year's legislative session, as Virginia has become ground zero in the nation's raging debate over gun control and mass shootings.
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Guns were a key topic of last year's legislative elections — particularly after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach claimed a dozen lives — and gun-control groups heavily funded Democratic candidates. Democrats won full control of the legislature for the first time in a generation and have promised to pass a slate of gun-control laws.
Gun owners are descending on local government offices to demand they establish sanctuaries for gun rights. More than 100 counties, cities and towns have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and vowed to oppose any new “unconstitutional restrictions” on guns. And last month, tens of thousands of gun-rights activists from across the country flooded the state Capitol and surrounding area in protest, some donning tactical gear and carrying military rifles.
Northam has been able to get most of his gun-control agenda passed in at least one chamber of the General Assembly this year, but struggled with the proposed assault weapon ban. Earlier proposals to ban possession of AR-15-style rifles or to require owners to register them with state police have been scrapped.
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An estimated 8 million AR-style guns have been sold since they were introduced to the public in the 1960s. The weapons are known as easy to use, easy to clean and easy to modify with a variety of scopes, stocks and rails.
“They are the Barbie doll of the gun world,” said Nicholas McGraw, a gun owner from King William County who came to protest the bill Friday. He said he doubts the measure, if passed, would be effective.
“I have friends that are not going to comply,” he said.
Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said a ban on selling assault weapons and high-capacity magazines is needed to help prevent mass shootings, or at least limit the damage mass shooters can inflict. He cited the fact that the shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 had a handgun with a high-capacity magazine.
“Assault weapons are not protected by the Second Amendment because they are weapons of war," Moran said.
Opponents said the measure would make many law-abiding Virginians felons for owning commonly available guns and accessories.
“This bill does not make Virginians safer, what this bill does is make Virginians, law-abiding Virginians, felons overnight,” said D.J. Spiker, a lobbyist for the NRA.
The measure faces high odds of passage, as several moderate Senate Democrats have already indicated they're unlikely to support an assault weapons ban this year. The full House is expected to vote on the measure in coming days.