RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's push to ban the sale of assault weapons failed on Monday after some of his fellow Democrats balked at the proposal.
Senators voted to shelve the bill for the year and ask the state crime commission to study the issue, an outcome that drew cheers from a committee room packed with gun advocates.
Four Democrats — most of them moderates — joined Republicans in Monday's committee vote, rejecting legislation that would have prohibited the sale of certain semiautomatic firearms, including popular AR-15 style rifles, and banned the possession of magazines that hold more than 12 rounds.
The bill was a top priority for Northam, who has campaigned heavily for a broad package of gun-control measures. The governor's spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said he's disappointed with the result but determined to continue to press for the measure.
“We will be back next year," she said.
David Majure, a gun-rights supporter who attended the committee hearing, said he's glad about Monday's results but not convinced the bill is dead for the year.
“I'm happy about it, but I don't trust them," he said.
Virginia is the current epicenter of the country's heated debate over guns, as a new Democratic majority seeks to enact strict new limits.
Democrats ran heavily on gun control during last year's legislative elections when they flipped control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than two decades.
But gun owners, especially in rural communities, have pushed back hard. Last month, tens of thousands of guns-rights activists from around the country flooded the Capitol and surrounding area in protest, some donning tactical gear and carrying military-style rifles. And more than 100 counties, cities and towns have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, vowing to oppose any new “unconstitutional restrictions” on guns.
The proposed assault weapon ban has received the most opposition. Gun owners have accused the governor and others of wanting to confiscate commonly owned guns and accessories from law-abiding gun owners. Northam and his allies have said repeatedly they do not want to confiscate guns, but argued that banning new sales of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines would help prevent mass murders.
"This bill will save lives," said Democratic Del. Mark Levine, who sponsored the legislation.
Earlier proposals to ban possession of AR-15-style rifles or to require owners to register them with state police have been scrapped. The governor had hoped a watered-down version would win over enough Democratic moderates for passage.
But moderate Democrats in the state Senate have said for weeks they are uncomfortable passing legislation that would affect so many current gun owners.
An estimated 8 million AR-style guns have been sold since they were introduced to the public in the 1960s. The weapons are known as easy to use, easy to clean and easy to modify with a variety of scopes, stocks and rails.
Lawmakers voted to table the bill Monday with little debate, while noting that there was confusion over what types of guns would constitute an assault weapon.
“There are obviously a lot of questions about definitions in this bill. Definitions do matter,” said Democratic Sen. Creigh Deeds.
The Senate has now rejected three of the governor's eight gun-control measures. Moderate Democrats have already voted with Republicans to kill a bill that would make it a felony to “recklessly leave a loaded, unsecured firearm” in a way that endangers a minor, and a bill that would require gun owners to report the loss or theft of a gun to police.
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have already advanced several other gun-control measures and should finalize passage in the coming days. Those bills include limiting handgun purchases to once a month; universal background checks on gun purchases; allowing localities to ban guns in public buildings, parks and other areas; and a red flag bill that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from anyone deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.