Senate panel rejects bill stiffening penalties for letting minors access guns

Senate panel rejects bill stiffening penalties for letting minors access guns
The Virginia State Capitol. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A bill to toughen Virginia’s law against letting minors access loaded guns failed in a Senate committee Monday morning as two Democrats joined Republicans in blocking it.

Under current law, it’s a misdemeanor offense to “recklessly” leave a loaded, unsecured gun accessible to a child under 14. As drafted, Senate Bill 581, introduced by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, would have raised the age to 18 and made violations a felony offense.

Even after changes were made to keep the misdemeanor classification and add a clear exemption for youth hunting, the bill failed on a 7-8 vote.

Sens. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, and Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, voted with six Republicans to prevent the bill’s passage.

“We’ve done a lot with guns this session. A lot,” Petersen said. “I think we’re starting to get more into intra-family dynamics than we are firearms.”

The minor access bill is one of eight gun-control proposals supported by Gov. Ralph Northam. The House of Delegates passed its version of the bill on a 54-46 vote last week. But Monday’s Senate hearing showed the bill may not have the votes to pass the upper chamber.

In a statement, the governor’s office said the bill would have no impact on hunting.

“The governor thanks the House of Delegates for voting to pass their version of this bill,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky. “He looks forward to it continuing to move through the legislative process.”

Steve Benjamin, a Richmond defense lawyer who serves as counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the panel Monday that, under his interpretation, the bill wouldn’t criminalize teen hunting.

“If you have a very well-trained 15-year-old who can be entrusted with a loaded firearm, that is not what is prohibited by this statute,” Benjamin said.

Supporters have characterized the legislation as a way to prevent gun deaths among children and teenagers, particularly suicides carried out with firearms a parent didn’t keep in a safe place.

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