Virginia Senate committee advances bill to ban sales of 'assault firearms'

Opponents of the measure questioned its constitutionality, particularly in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen.

Updated: January 24, 2023 - 6:30am

A Virginia Senate committee voted along party lines Monday to advance a bill banning sales of assault firearms after July of this year, a measure supporters say would increase gun safety in the commonwealth.

Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance a measure that would create a Class 1 misdemeanor for any person who “imports, sells, manufactures, purchases, possesses, transports or transfers” an assault firearm. The bill specifies that an “assault firearm" does not include antique firearms, weapons deemed inoperable, firearms manually operated by a bolt, pump, lever or slide action, or any firearm manufactured before July 1, 2023.

The committee ultimately voted to roll together Senate Bill 918 by Sen. Joe Morrissey into Senate Bill 1382 by Sen. Creigh Deeds – two similar measures addressing assault weapons.

Given the current political make up of the General Assembly – where Democrats hold a majority in the Senate, and Republicans control the House of Delegates – any gun legislation will need to receive bipartisan support in order to pass. During Monday's hearing, the bill did not receive support from any Republican lawmakers on the committee – a sign it could face an uphill battle in the House of Delegates.

Supporters of the measure say the bill will increase safety in the commonwealth at a time when the U.S. is seeing a rise in mass shootings.

In 2022, the U.S. had 647 mass shootings – defined by the Gun Violence Archive as four or more people shot or killed. Thus far this year, there have been 36 mass shootings across the U.S., according to the Gun Violence Archive.

“I'm hoping that this constitutional piece of legislation will pass,” Morrissey told lawmakers Monday. “I hope that there is an eye towards folks realizing that if we don't do something, these mass shootings will continue unabated. And that's the goal – to stop the carnage and the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Opponents of the measure questioned its constitutionality, particularly in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen over the summer, which found that the Second Amendment protects the right to carry a handgun in public for self-defense. Opponents also noted a similar ban on assault weapons in Maryland is currently being litigated.

“I’m not an attorney – I don’t presume things are constitutional or unconstitutional before they’re litigated,” said DJ Spiker, director of state and local government affairs with the National Rifle Association. “I would point out that the Maryland statute regarding an assault weapons ban was at the Supreme Court post-Bruen, it’s been remanded back to Maryland and is currently being litigated by the Maryland Attorney General and certainly that litigation is ongoing.”

The committee ultimately moved to advance the bill and refer it to the Senate Finance Committee.

The bill was among a slew of gun bills taken up by the committee Monday. Lawmakers voted to defeat a Republican-backed bill that proposed repealing local governments' ability to restrict guns in certain public spaces, while advancing bills strengthening gun storage laws and establishing penalties against individuals selling unserialized firearms.