In the wake of Friday's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Virginia Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston) says she will reintroduce a bill that would close the commonwealth's gun show loophole, which allows people to buy firearms at gun shows without a background check.
"It's tragic," Howell says about the shooting that killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults. "I don't know whether I'm more angry or sad over it. I have introduced this bill in the past, and so have other people, but I'm hopeful there will be a better chance of passage this year."
Closing the gun show loophole is among several gun bills in Virginia that repeatedly have been introduced and died in committee or are otherwise defeated. There are already 13 firearms bills prefiled for the 2013 session that are carryovers of bills from 2012.
Lawmakers representing Alexandria discussed at a recent forum in City Hall the difficulties of getting any legislation through that would put more limits on gun purchases and use.
"Virginia was the scene of a great gun tragedy," said Del. Ken Plum (D-Reston), referring to the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. "In spite of that, though, we have seen constant erosion of limited gun laws. We saw the one-handgun-a month-law repealed this year. You can now have guns in restaurants. It is time to repeal all that."
Plum says gun laws are among the most divisive issues in a state like Virginia. The key lies in persuading downstate legislators to co-sponsor bills that would make guns tougher to obtain, Plum says.
"Not many people are willing to take on the gun lobby," he said.
Del. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon), who was a sponsor of a 2011 bill (that died in committee) about limiting the number of bullets in a clip, says the attitudes of residents in Northern Virginia need to be better represented in state policy.
"In the national election, Virginia, from Loudoun and Prince William counties north votes like Massachusetts," he said. "From that line and south, it votes like Kentucky. We ought to be able to keep guns out of bars, but the state says we can't."
In 2012, Gov. Bob McDonnell repealed a 19-year-old law that limited gun purchases to one per month. In 2010, Virginia became one of four states allowing guns in bars.
However, Del. Dave Albo (R-Springfield) points out Virginia has also toughened some firearms laws in recent years.
"After Virginia Tech, we made changes to the law that fixed the problem that [the shooter] was able to get weapons even though he had a history of mental illness," Albo said.
Albo also said lawmakers don't only vote on party lines. He voted to keep the one-gun-a-month law, for instance.
"No one wants to see anyone get killed by criminals," he said. "Even if we ban guns in America, there are 100 million guns out there. Sixty percent of people in the U.S. own guns. I am interested in people giving me ideas that we can look at, that actually do something."
Howell and Surovell say they have both heard from a handful of constituents since Friday. Their message: Guns are too available and it is time to act.
"I hope at this point we have reached a tipping point," Howell said. "One thing everyone agrees on is that access should be limited to keeping guns from mentally ill people and those with a history of violence.
"There are other things that need to be done as well," Howell said. "I think the federal level needs to look at restricting assault weapons and look more into improving mental health programs."