The General Assembly went into Special Session yesterday, July 9, at the call of Governor Ralph Northam to address gun violence after a shooter with a silencer on his pistol murdered a dozen persons in a municipal building in Virginia Beach. The outcome of the session in which legislators introduced eight different bills at the request of the Governor is unknown as I write this column. I introduced the bill that I have introduced at other sessions to expand criminal background checks for all firearm transactions or universal background checks.
Virginia has had a criminal background check for gun purchases for 30 years. The system was put in place after a bill that was heavily debated and that seemed certain to be defeated was passed with the support of a senior delegate, Vic Thomas, who was an avid NRA supporter. He concluded that it was a bill the public clearly wanted and should pass because it did not interfere with the Second Amendment. In what may have been the last time the NRA took such a position, it did not support but it did not oppose the bill’s passage. Governor Gerald Baliles signed the bill into law even though he had earlier opposed any gun control legislation.
The resulting instant background check system that was put into place continues operating today. It was the promise of an instant background check without the need to wait for days for approval that was the feature that led to the bill’s passage.
There was then that continues today a major flaw in the law as originally passed that supporters had hoped to correct but have not been successful in amending. The law only applies to purchases made with federally licensed gun dealers. That’s about half the gun sales in the state each year although exact statistics are unknown because of statutory limitations on gathering information about gun sales put in place with NRA advocacy. This flaw in the law created what is referred to as the “gun show loophole.” At any of the numerous gun shows that are held throughout the Commonwealth one can purchase a gun from a federally licensed gun dealer with an instant background check; at the next table at the show a person can purchase a gun from an unlicensed dealer with no identification needed and no questions asked.
The astonishing statistic is that in 2018 the Virginia State Police conducted 446,333 firearms transactions involving licensed dealers with 3,457 of the transactions denied because of previous criminal behavior. Had the loophole in the law been closed there may have been as many as a half million more checks with a proportionally high number of persons with criminal records being denied another weapon.
What is good for the goose is good for the gander, as I have always been told. With a successful system for background checks in place for thirty years without opposition or hiccups, all gun sales should go through the system with minor exceptions related to family members. According to many polls, the public supports universal background checks at levels around 90 percent. It is time for the legislature to act or be able to explain to the public in the coming political campaign why this old adage is not being followed.