A bill that would have banned military-style rifles in Virginia was defeated in the State Senate on Monday, a sign of the limited power of the state’s new Democratic majority in enacting the most restrictive elements of its gun-control agenda and a blow to Gov. Ralph Northam’s efforts to restrict gun possession.
The prohibition on military-style rifles was the most contentious of a series of gun-control bills making their way through the state Legislature this year and the centerpiece of Democrats’ attempts to restrict firearms after a gunman fatally shot 12 people in Virginia Beach last May.
The state is at the heart of a long-simmering debate related to the nation’s uneasy accommodation regarding gun laws, with Democrats in the state’s urban areas and suburbs supporting gun-control measures, while many rural residents have mounted large gun-rights protests in response.
The assault-weapons bill rejected Monday would have prohibited the sale, purchase, manufacture and most transfers of military-style weapons, as well as large-capacity magazines holding more than 12 rounds. It would have also banned trigger activators, including bump stocks, designed to make weapons simulate automatic machine-gun fire.
Four Democrats on the 15-member Senate Judiciary Committee joined six Republicans in voting to send the proposal to a state commission for further study. The measure is likely to be debated again next year, lawmakers said.
The Democrats represent both suburban and urban areas, and each of the lawmakers had supported other gun-control measures this session.
But one of the Democrats, R. Creigh Deeds, said there was discomfort in enacting an outright ban because lawmakers had failed to arrive at a consensus definition of what constitutes an assault weapon despite weeks of negotiations. Deeds said there remained “a lot of questions” about the definition.
The initial version of the measure would have prohibited all assault-style weapons in the state, which would have required owners to turn them in. But that version was recently overhauled to allow owners to keep their weapons. However, it banned new sales and transfers of assault-style weapons.
On Monday, Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, the group that organized a massive gun-rights rally at the Virginia State Capitol last month, praised the vote on Twitter.
Van Cleave wrote that the rally, as well as the declaration by more than 100 counties and municipalities across the state as “Second Amendment sanctuaries” had sent a stern political warning to legislators about enacting severe gun restrictions.
“VICTORY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Van Cleave tweeted.
He added in another tweet: “Everybody’s hard work, Lobby Day, and sanctuary movement paid off!”
Despite the defeat of the assault-rifle ban, however, both the state Senate and the House of Delegates are poised to give final approval later this month to at least five other gun-control bills.
Those measures include limiting handgun purchases to one each month, requiring background checks for all firearms sales and transfers, and imposing a “red flag” law, which allows the confiscation of guns from people deemed by courts to be dangerous to themselves or others.
Northam, a Democrat, has said he intends to sign the measures into law.
Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said in a statement Monday that the governor was “disappointed” by the failure of the assault-rifle ban, but added: ”We will be back next year.”
Republicans had refused to consider gun-control proposals when they controlled the state Legislature last year, and the issue became one of the central themes for Democratic candidates, who in November won control of both chambers for the first time in 25 years.
During the committee hearing Monday, which was filled with gun-rights supporters, a Marine Corps combat veteran told lawmakers that the M-16 assault rifle — a military assault-style rifle — was a critical tool of war, but that such firearms had no place among civilians.
“I had to use this weapon to save my life on multiple occasions on the battlefield — but when I see civilians carrying them on the streets of our cities, I am brought back to those days of combat, and the unrelenting knowledge of just how lethal they are,” said Kyleanne Hunter, who was an AH-1W “Super Cobra” helicopter attack pilot during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But opponents of the prohibition say they fear a ban on assault-style rifles would be a prelude to the government confiscating weapons from law-abiding citizens.
The National Rifle Association cheered the bill’s demise, saying that while people who owned assault-style rifles would not have had to surrender their weapons to state authorities, those who possessed high-capacity magazines might have had to turn them in.
“There was no option for citizens to keep their lawfully acquired magazines with capacities greater than 12 rounds, forcing millions of Virginians to dispose of their property, become a criminal, or surrender them to the government,” the National Rifle Association said in a statement Monday.