In an attempt to stem what Democratic lawmakers say is an epidemic of guns being stolen from vehicles, the Virginia Senate passed legislation Thursday that would create a $500 civil penalty for firearm owners who leave handguns on a car seat or other areas visible to passersby.
The legislation, one of the first gun control measures put to a full vote in either chamber this year, still needs to pass the House of Delegates and is likely at risk of being vetoed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin after the session ends. Still, the issue highlights the two parties’ diverging views on how to address gun crime, with Democrats trying to reduce the number of guns flowing onto the streets and Republicans calling for tougher enforcement of existing laws.
Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, said the bill he’s sponsoring uses a “light touch” to try to limit the supply of guns available to people who shouldn’t have them.
“We cannot have our vehicles here in the commonwealth act as vending machines for firearms,” Marsden said.
If authorities spot a vehicle with a visible handgun inside, the bill would allow them to have the vehicle towed. The law would apply to any “unattended motor vehicle” left on a public highway or public property where neither the driver nor a passenger can see it.
To illustrate the extent of the problem they’re attempting to solve, Democratic lawmakers pointed to recent statistics presented by the Richmond Police Department showing a major uptick in the number of guns stolen from vehicles in Virginia’s capital. There were 225 such thefts in 2017, according to city police, and 637 in 2022.
All 19 Republicans in the Senate voted against the bill, with the chamber’s 21 Democrats voting to pass it.
Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, said the fundamental problem is people breaking into cars to begin with, adding that thieves could steal money or anything else of value left in a car and use the proceeds to buy a gun.
“We have to stop it at the beginning,” Peake said. “And that is by stopping people who are breaking into cars.”
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, argued the bill would have no impact because he’s doubtful many gun owners are so careless as to leave a handgun in plain sight for would-be thieves. The state should instead focus on different kinds of incentives for safe storage, Obenshain said, such as a bill passed in 2023 that created a $300 tax credit to help Virginians buy gun safes and lockboxes.
“We ought not be punishing victims of crimes,” Obenshain said.
Democratic senators said the law’s passage alone would send a message to Virginia gun owners to be more thoughtful about how they store firearms in vehicles.
“Responsible gun owners ought to get in the habit of putting their gun in the glovebox,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. “Put it in the glovebox every time they get out of their car. Just make it a habit.”
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