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Taking shots at gun laws
Hampton Sen. Mamie Locke is at the forefront now of an expected wave of legislation aimed at firearms.

By KIMBALL PAYNE | 247-4765
January 2, 2008

Expect grieving parents to talk about their slain children as they plead for stricter gun controls.

Expect passionate Second Amendment loyalists to argue that a legally armed professor could have halted the Virginia Tech massacre.

In all, expect heated discussions and passionate debates about firearms when state lawmakers return to Richmond next week.

"We could see a record number of gun bills," said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights group. "There should be a lot more starting to roll in. This is life-and-death stuff."

Just don't expect a whole lot of change.

"In the grand scheme of things — we'll probably get very little," said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who has filed a pair of bills that would allow communities to tighten firearm restrictions, including allowing them to ban guns in libraries. "I don't know what it's going to take, but at the very least, I expect there to be more attention on the issue."

The General Assembly convenes in Richmond on Jan. 9. Experts are awaiting a wave of debate about gun laws in large part because of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, where 32 students and faculty members were killed by a mentally ill gunman who also killed himself. Some victims' families are planning to head to Richmond to put a face on the tragedy and push for increased controls and tougher background checks on gun buyers.

Couple that with the fact that Democrats now control the committee system in the Senate, thanks to Election Day wins in November, and guns are bound to be a hot topic.

But don't wait for every proposal to simply offer a different way to tighten restrictions because gun-rights advocates have their own set of ideas about how the state should respond to the Tech killings. Many say mental health reforms will be the most crucial.

But for the past two years, some Republicans in the House of Delegates have unsuccessfully pushed to allow gun owners to carry weapons for protection on college and university campuses. Most colleges and universities have rules against guns, but a new state law would override any campus policies.

Van Cleave expressed sympathy for the victims of the shootings but said the massacre shouldn't "be used as an excuse to open up the gun control floodgates."

Van Cleave said that emotional testimony was likely to sway a few lawmakers but that gun rights advocates were going to be making their own arguments.

"We're coming out swinging, as well," he said. "We're not just going to sit there."

So far, Locke is on the front end of the wave because only a handful of bills have been introduced. This is the third time that Locke has tried to separate gun-toting from book-borrowing. Both previous attempts — in 2005 and 2007 — failed to reach the Senate floor for debate.

But that was back when the Senate Local Government Committee was headed by Sen. Fred Quayle, R-Suffolk, who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association in recent campaigns. Now Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, will be in charge, and she voted for both of Locke's bills in committee.

"Yeah, you've got an anti-gun chairman," Van Cleave said. "But she doesn't have ultimate control."

Even with an ally running the show, Locke isn't banking on any support from Republican lawmakers and little from rural Democrats.

"I don't expect the bills to pass this time, either," she said.

But Locke said she refused to give up, instead adding a second bill to her list this year — one that would give cities and counties the power to ban guns from festivals and carnivals that draw more than 500 people.

The legislation is in part a response to a run-in between a gun owner and Norfolk police officers during the city's Harborfest celebration in June. A Yorktown man was arrested after carrying a holstered pistol to the outdoor event. City officials had passed an ordinance banning guns at the summer party. But that code was in violation of state law, and the man was released — and the incident set off a backlash from gun owners.

"It was more than just Harborfest," Locke said, recalling a harrowing firearm experience that she had with her sister at Afr'Am Fest in Norfolk a few years ago. "It has the potential to happen at any festival with that many people."

Van Cleave spearheaded the gun rights protests after Harborfest. He said criminals would be less likely to cause problems at outdoor gatherings and events if they were worried that other revelers could be armed.

"The police can't be everywhere," Van Cleave said.

Locke is a little more optimistic about efforts to close the "gun show" loophole, which allows unlicensed gun dealers to avoid criminal-background checks on buyers. The state panel reviewing the Virginia Tech massacre recommended closing the loophole, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, has promised to be "very aggressive" about it.

But lawmakers in the state Senate have rejected bills aimed at the loophole in the past three sessions, and that's friendlier territory for gun control advocates than the House, where Republicans hold the majority.

Many rural and conservative lawmakers strongly oppose gun control initiatives, and the House Militia, Police and Public Safety committee is openly hostile to legislation that it sees as infringing on the Second Amendment.

"These laws have come up before. This is nothing new to us," said Rachel Parsons, a spokeswoman with the NRA in Fairfax. "We expect the same result."