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Northam signs history-making batch of gun control bills
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Northam signs history-making batch of gun control bills

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Gov. Ralph Northam signed a historic batch of gun control bills Friday, marking a major victory for Democrats who made curbing gun violence a top priority with their new majorities.

He signed five gun control measures, including expanding background checks to all firearm sales and reinstating the cap on handgun sales to one a month.

Northam, a Democrat, celebrated the signing on a phone news conference with gun control advocates. He praised them for their work in helping to flip the House of Delegates and Senate to give Democrats the majority.

“It was time to have our legislators come to Richmond and to take votes and pass laws, and that’s exactly what they did this year,” Northam said.

Virginia will also join other states that have enacted “red flag” laws that allow courts to temporarily ban people from possessing firearms if there are clear signs that they pose a danger to themselves or others.

Northam also signed bills that will increase the penalty for recklessly allowing a firearm to fall into the hands of a child younger than 14 and will require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement within 48 hours of discovering they’re missing.

Northam is sending two proposals back to the General Assembly with recommended tweaks.

For legislation that would allow localities to regulate firearms at certain buildings and events, amendments clarify the exemption for institutions of higher education.

The other bill to which he is recommending changes would prohibit people who are subject to protective orders from possessing firearms, require them to turn over the firearms within 24 hours, and certify to the court they have done so. Northam is asking the legislature to adopt a change to allow courts to hold people in contempt if they don’t prove they have given up their guns.

The legislature will reconvene April 22 to consider these proposals.

A handful of other gun control bills still await Northam’s signature. These proposals include eliminating the online training option to obtain a concealed carry permit, requiring guns and ammunition in family day homes be locked up, prohibiting school boards from allowing anyone other than those authorized by statute from possessing a firearm on school property, and creating a “do not sell” list for which people could voluntarily register if they don’t want firearms sold to them.

Democrats moved most of their gun control proposals through the General Assembly with ease. A proposal to ban the sale of assault weapons received the most pushback from the gun rights community, helping inspire the Second Amendment sanctuary movement. Gun owners staged a massive protest outside the Capitol that brought armed people from across the state to the streets and sidewalks of Richmond.

Northam lamented Friday that the legislature was unable to pass the legislation and said the proposal will be introduced again next year.

“I’ve always said we don’t need weapons of war on our streets,” he said.

It’s been a long fight for gun control in Virginia. In the years after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, gun rights, not restrictions, grew stronger. A review panel evaluated the university and law enforcement response to the incident and provided a list of recommendations. Its only gun control suggestion was expanded background checks, which remained a long sought-after goal for Virginia Tech families.

Northam called a special session last July to take up gun control measures in the wake of the May mass shooting in Virginia Beach, but Republicans used their slim majorities in the General Assembly to end the session in just 90 minutes.

Democrats made gun control a top campaign theme in November.

“You’ve raised and elevated it to a priority item, and legislators who supported reducing gun violence and enacting commonsense gun legislation were elected,” Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran said.

Gun rights advocates said they plan to build on the accomplishments in Virginia and expand their momentum to other states.

Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said that while the National Rifle Association is laying off staff and taking other cost-cutting measures because of the economic pain of the coronavirus outbreak, Moms Demand Action plans to spend $1.5 million to register new voters for the November election.

“The NRA is weaker than it has ever been, and our movement is stronger than it has ever been,” Watts said.

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