Misfire: Virginia’s new firearm prohibition is off-target
In June, Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) signed Virginia’s newest firearms prohibition into law. The statute prohibits persons convicted of domestic battery and assault against family members from purchasing, possessing or transporting firearms for three years from the date of their conviction. Proponents of the legislation believe this is a life saving measure by empowering law enforcement to disarm known offenders. When interviewed, Lori Haas of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence said, “right now, if law enforcement comes across a person who has this conviction on his or her record, they can immediately disarm that person there and then… it is a good law and it’s going to save lives.” However, critics of the new law feel there are numerous loopholes that leave many victims unprotected.
The statute provides that a person who knowingly purchases, possesses or transports a firearm in the Commonwealth, after being convicted of domestic assault and battery of a family member, is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor. It further defines a family member or household member as being only spouses, former spouses and co-parents. This falls short of federal law, which extends a firearms prohibition to “anyone who attempts or threatens violence against a loved one, has demonstrated that he or she poses an unacceptable risk, and should be prohibited from possessing firearms.” Federalism arguments aside, if the Commonwealth is going to pass a law of this nature, why push through a watered-down version of an existing federal law?
The final subsection of the statute automatically restores the rights to purchase, possess, and transport firearms for convicted persons three years after the date of conviction if there are no subsequent convictions.
The Virginia statute will provide greater protection to qualified victims; however, it leaves too many victims of domestic violence unprotected. The Giffords Law Center outlines the shortfalls of the new law in clear terms. This statute does not cover dating partners convicted of domestic violence who have not resided with the victim. Further, no protection is explicitly provided for survivors who have ex parte restraining orders. Giffords further raises a harrowing point: the statute’s language is not only reactive, it leaves no roadmap for law enforcement. It does not authorize or require the removal of firearms at the scene of a domestic violence incident, only that convicted persons should voluntarily turn in their guns. What is the expectation of law enforcement? Under what circumstances are firearms actually confiscated? Will law enforcement officers only confiscate firearms present at traffic stops, or while executing search warrants for other charges? The goal is protecting victims and the prevention of violent crime, so why settle for a field goal on the one-yard line?
In 2020, more than half of all homicides in the Commonwealth of Virginia were committed by intimate partners, and over 70% of those homicides involved the use of a firearm. Additionally, State Police estimate that there are roughly 31,000 active protective orders in the Commonwealth. Furthermore, since 1999, over a third of Virginia’s homicides were related to domestic violence, and 55% of family and intimate partner homicides in that same timeframe involved a firearm. According to Disarm Domestic Violence, “over 1.9 million Virginia residents experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes.”
Despite the legislature’s best efforts, the statute as it is currently written leaves numerous victims of domestic violence under-protected. In its current form, the prohibition only extends to those convicted of domestic assault and battery against their spouses or children. This leaves out the myriad of victims that are abused by partners that are not married. Further, the statute does not give law enforcement instructions on how to properly enforce the new law. Expanding or amending Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-308.1:8 should absolutely be a priority during next spring’s legislative session.