Virginia Democrats working on gun violence emergency bill

Del. Chris Hurst meets Wednesday with officers, experts

LEXINGTON, Va. – Lawmakers are working on ways to help law enforcement officers prevent gun violence. One idea is to let officers temporarily take guns away from people determined to be at risk to do harm.

Some call it gun control. Some call it common sense in the case of an emergency. Others call it the government taking people’s guns.

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, held a town-hall style discussion Wednesday on VMI’s post in Lexington. Police chiefs, sheriffs, commonwealth’s attorneys, legal experts and other Democratic lawmakers spoke.

Hurst hopes to present a bill in the Virginia Legislature in the 2019 session that gives police more power to take action in emergency situations.

The proposal is called an Extreme Risk Protection Order. It lets officers take someone’s guns for a two-week period if they get a warrant. These are cases where someone is a serious, imminent threat to themselves or others.

It could come into play if someone’s drunk and threatening someone, if someone posts on social media threatening to shoot someone or if there’s reason to believe someone might hurt themselves.

Hurst said officers had plenty of questions about how to carry out the seizures and how citizens can get due process, but overall they’d like to have the authority outlined in the bill.

“They are receptive to the idea,” Hurst said. “They acknowledge that the kind of scenarios that these laws would try to reduce are out there and they encounter them every single day.”

He said it’s discussions like the one Wednesday that can help craft a piece of legislation that could get bipartisan support.

"I thought the event went extremely well because here you had this opportunity where sitting members of the state Legislature are able to hear in a very intimate way about the concerns and encouragement from law enforcement.”

One of the motivating factors in pushing for the proposal is the rise in guns in the use of suicide in Virginia and nationwide.

"There is a problem. We're coming to the table with possible solutions based off of feedback we're getting from the public, and if there are other solutions brought to the table, I think we can vet them all,” Hurst said.

Blacksburg Police Department Chief Anthony Wilson said lawmakers need to help people understand that officers don't want to take someone's guns away unless absolutely necessary.

He and other officers voiced concerns about the proposal, but they also gave examples of when this law would help them.

"I have officers that come in every day that say, ‘Chief, we left a gun in a house that scares me to death. Not just for his family. We're going to go there over and over again. It's just a matter of time before he shoots one of us,’" Wilson said during the discussion.

Some people 10 News spoke to in Lexington and Buena Vista are for it. 

"If they're a risk to themselves or someone else I think there should be precautions taken,” Lexington resident Heather Stines said.

Others are against it.

"I feel like it's threatening to the public because a lot of people want to use their guns to defend themselves,” Buena Vista resident Victoria Owen said.

A legal expert said in a presentation that the bill would contain the paths people can take to have their guns returned to them, saying that they’d need to prove that they’re no longer a threat.

Hurst held the meeting outside the area he represents because, as one of the leaders of the Safe Virginia Initiative, he wants to have discussions like these throughout southwest Virginia between now and October.

Virginia’s House Democratic Caucus formed the SVI this year to create new policies to reduce gun violence.

There are a handful of states that have laws similar to this proposal, including Florida.