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Most Virginia firearm bills fall victim to bipartisan stalemate

Lawmakers did not pass bills introducing penalties for improperly storing a firearm, but did agree to incentivize firearm safety through a tax credit.

Capital News Service

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By Chloe Hawkins

Lawmakers did not pass bills introducing penalties for improperly storing a firearm, but did agree to incentivize firearm safety through a tax credit.

Lawmakers last week passed a measure introduced by Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington. The House bill, which had bipartisan support in both chambers, will create a tax credit for purchasing a firearm safety device, such as a gun safe or locker.

Anyone who purchases a gun safe, or similar device that can be used to store a firearm by means of a key or combination, will be eligible for a tax credit, according to the bill. Taxable years for this credit are between Jan. 1 and Jan. 1, 2028.

The purchaser of a gun safe will receive no more than one tax credit a year for up to $300 of the purchase price of one or more firearm safety devices, according to the bill. Lawmakers agreed to cap the pool of available credits allowed at $5 million annually, on a first-come, first-served basis. Taxpayers are required to submit receipts for the purchases.

Democratic lawmakers think more is needed to curb gun violence, and introduced several gun control measures that were not passed this session.

The number of gun-related deaths among Virginia minors from 2017-2022 is about 500, according to statistics shared by Kathrin Hobron, chief medical examiner for the Virginia Department of Health. The number of cases for 2022 is around 90, but are still being counted and are subject to change, Hobron stated.

Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, introduced Senate Bill 1139. The bill required that a firearm owner who lives with a minor, or someone prohibited from using firearms, to safely store their personal firearms. It also required gun stores to post notice of the law and penalty for violation.

Boysko introduced the bill due to the increase in gun violence, she said.

“Children are killed by gunfire more than any other reason in the U.S. and in Virginia,” Boysko said. “I think it’s time that we do something about it.”

Over 100 incidents involving a firearm were reported throughout Virginia schools in the previous school year, according to student behavior and administrative response data collected by the state Department of Education.

A 6 year old shot their teacher at a Newport News elementary school in January. The family released a statement which read, in part, “the firearm our son accessed was secured.”

Two days before Boysko’s bill died in a House subcommittee, a loaded gun was found at Lloyd C. Bird High School, located in Chesterfield County. This is at least the third gun incident reported at the high school this school year, with a gun found in October and a loaded magazine found in September, according to local news reports.

Senate lawmakers amended Boysko’s bill to reduce the penalty charges. The original penalty was a Class 1 misdemeanor charge, which is equal to 12 months in jail, a fine of up to $2,500, or both, according to Boysko. The penalty was reduced to a Class 4 misdemeanor, which is a fine of up to $250.

“We don’t want to send people to prison,” Boysko said of the reduced penalty. “We want to help them change behavior so that they’re behaving responsibly with their firearms.”

The Senate passed the bill on a 22-16 vote, with two Republican votes of support. Boysko was “thrilled” to see the bill pass.

“It was nice to see that we got a little bit of bipartisan support,” Boysko said.

The thrill was short-lived. The bill was assigned to the House Public Safety subcommittee, where it died the next day — without a chance for Boysko to present the bill to the panel.

Some concerns with the bill in the Senate centered around hunting.

“There are those of us who live in rural Virginia, and we are raised up with hunting guns,” said Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, ahead of a vote on the bill. “And they are not assault weapons.”

The bill needed “a lot more work” to reach its true intentions, Stuart said.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, introduced a similar firearm storage bill in the House that never made it out of subcommittee.

Philip Van Cleave is the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, an organization that lobbies for gun rights. Van Cleave opposed the bill and said it was a “one-size-fits-all” bill.

“There are some families, probably quite a few, especially in rural parts of the state, where a person in their teens has grown up around guns,” Van Cleave said. “Their parents have taught them how to safely handle guns, how to shoot them and everything else.”

Firearm owners don’t deserve to be punished because of a few irresponsible parents, according to Van Cleave.

Almost 50 firearm-related bills — gun control measures and efforts to roll back gun control measures — were introduced this session, but few are anticipated to complete the path through both chambers, which are currently controlled by opposing parties.

“It’s never been this bad,” Van Cleave said about the partisan divide around firearm legislation.

Stephen Farnsworth is the director of the University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies and a political science professor. Firearms need to be secured effectively, especially in places where kids are present, Farnsworth said.

“What we learned in the wake of what happened at that Hampton Roads elementary school is that standards to keep guns from children could stand to be improved,” Farnsworth said.

Republicans who represent rural areas are attempting to be competitive with their messaging to capture votes in the looming primary races, according to Farnsworth.

 A significant number of Republicans actually favor gun safes and trigger locks, but folks who vote in primaries are “much more extreme,” he said.

“They are much more likely to be single-issue voters on things like guns and abortion,” Farnsworth said.

 Lawmakers will continue to reach a deadlock on gun control laws until the two parties can come to a mutual agreement, Farnsworth said.

“What you can expect with gun control and the legislature is what you can expect would be the fate for just about every hot-button issue in the Commonwealth right now — divided government equals stalemate,” Farnsworth said.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.