Bill to suspend gun rights for domestic assault convictions passes in Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A bill to temporarily take away gun rights for some misdemeanor domestic assault convictions is on the way to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk after winning final approval in the General Assembly on Monday.

Under the legislation from Del. Kathleen Murphy (D-Fairfax), violators who knowingly purchase, possess or transport a firearm despite being banned could be charged with a Class One misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of 12 months behind bars.

If Northam signs the measure into law, it would apply to those found guilty of assault and battery against certain family members on or after July 1, 2021.

The bill that passed in the House of Delegates on Monday incorporated various changes suggested by the Senate.

One allows a person’s gun rights to be restored automatically three years after a conviction, unless another crime disqualifies them or they’re subject to an ongoing protective order. Another limits firearm prohibitions to those who abuse a current spouse, a former spouse or “any individual who has a child in common with the person,” regardless of whether the parents have ever resided together.

“While I would’ve preferred it to include intimate partners, this is a positive step forward for this bill that we’ve worked on for so many years,” Murphy said before the amendments were adopted.

Murphy’s bill was scaled back after a similar measure from Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) was rejected. Five Senate Democrats sided with Republicans to kill the legislation earlier this session.

During the floor debate on Favola’s bill, some opponents were concerned that scuffles between siblings and unrelated roommates could lead to a person’s Second Amendment rights being stripped. The Senate’s legislation also didn’t outline a process for the restoration of rights, though it called on the Virginia Crime Commission to study it.

A similar firearm possession ban is already on the books at the federal level but lawmakers say it’s rarely enforced. Murphy’s bill would give local police the tools to intervene if they come across a violation.

GoochlandCares Family Services Director Carol Dunlap, who works with domestic violence survivors regularly, supports the push for change in this area. She pointed to studies that show a woman is five times more likely to be killed by an abusive partner who has access to a gun.

“This bill is critical to the safety of our clients,” Dunlap said. “We work with folks all the time where guns are used to threaten, to intimidate, to hurt and to kill.”

Lori Haas with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence wishes the bill was broader but she’s still backing it. Haas has been fighting for gun control since her daughter was wounded during the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre.

“We know a history of violence is the single biggest predictor of future violence,” Haas said. “Studies show over and over again that perpetrators of mass shootings often have a history of domestic violence.”

Virginia Citizens Defense League President Philip Van Cleave said the bill is better than it started but it still goes too far.

Van Cleave fears several elements of the bill are incompatible with federal law. He said that could cause legal challenges that stand in the way of Second Amendment rights.

“We’ve always objected to a misdemeanor taking away any of your rights. That’s why we have misdemeanors. They were created because they are–by definition–not a serious crime,” Van Cleave said. “This federal law is dragging us into an area we never should’ve been dragged into constitutionally. So now we’re doing the best we can to have as reasonable an outcome as possible.”