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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Gunbattles will rage in Va. races; A1

Debate over laws becoming loaded campaign issue

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine and former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore disagree on guns. Or at least on each other’s record on guns.

Kaine, a Democrat, says Republican Kilgore, his opponent in the November gubernatorial election, is lying about Kaine’s record on guns, casting him as anti-gun when he’s actually a Second Amendment supporter. Kilgore says Kaine is nothing of the sort, and has criticized his opponent for allegedly improperly implying an endorsement by former National Rifle Association President Charleton Heston.

Why are the two campaigns beating each other up over guns?

Even with its conservative, “red state” image, Virginia does have a history with gun control, and advocates on both sides of the gun issue say it’s far from settled.

It’s a long history, but one of the watershed events took place in the early 1990s when the General Assembly approved the “one gun per month” rule in response to charges that firearms trafficking in Virginia was contributing to crime in New York.

Even after a background check, buyers can only purchase one handgun every 30 days, with some exceptions. That’s a good thing, according to Casey Anderson, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a Washington-based lobby group that’s also active in Richmond.

“It’s hard to see whose interest would be served by allowing people to buy large numbers of guns all at the same time,” he said. “Most people are not in the market for buying 10 or 20 guns at a time … it’s too expensive.”
But the law infringes on a constitutional right, and makes some law-abiding citizens such as collectors into criminals, according to Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a group that represents some 3,000 gun owners.
“We hope to get rid of it eventually, ” he said. “South Carolina already has.”

And it could just be a matter of time. In recent years “the tide has really turned” in favor of gun rights, Van Cleave said.
Anderson and Van Cleave say they expect the gun rule to be an issue in the 2006 General Assembly, which could put Virginia’s new governor on the spot.

Another big issue for both sides is the “gun show loophole,” or a section of state law that doesn’t require non-federally licensed gun dealers to do background checks.

“Criminals are able to buy firearms in gun shows from unlicensed dealers,” Anderson said. “That makes it easy for people who can’t pass a background check to get guns.”

“It failed [last year] by one vote in the Senate,” he said. “Each year it’s picked up more support.”

But there is no loophole, according to Van Cleave.

Gun shows don’t convey any special rights to transactions, he said. Rather, those who don’t require a federal license are just doing what other private citizens can do — sell a gun without a background check.

Both disputes are typical of what’s on the fight card in Virginia.

Last year, the General Assembly pre-empted all but a handful of local gun laws, essentially making it legal to carry a loaded gun openly almost anywhere in the commonwealth with no permit.

There are so many gun-specific bills before the General Assembly each year that the House of Delegates has a subcommittee to deal with them.

Last year alone, legislators dealt with bills that would:
• Ban weapons inside libraries.
• Give those who can legally own a gun the right to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
• Revoke liquor licenses for restaurants that don’t ban weapons on their premises.
• Repeal the ban on carrying concealed weapons in places that serve alcohol.
• Ban the open carrying of weapons in places that serve alcohol.
• Ban .50-caliber rifles.
• Require the arrest of anyone found carrying a concealed weapon illegally. Current law calls for the issuance of a citation, much like a speeding ticket.

It’s about “both sides trying to frame the issue in a way that favors them,” Anderson said. With enough bills, one side can force their political opponents into voting controversial bills up or down.

That makes for campaign issues.
And it’s very helpful to have the governor on your side when a bill comes through the General Assembly, Van Cleave said. Not only for the veto power, but for the clout the office carries with members of the governor’s party.

Both Van Cleave and Anderson said their groups are watching the gubernatorial election closely — and that guns will be a hot topic here for some time to come.

“By no means” is the issue settled, Van Cleave said.

“I doubt we’re ever going to come to complete resolution,” Anderson said.