Newly proposed legislation in Virginia concerns gun ownership in the state and criminal penalties for certain firearms offenses. The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 16 (SB16), aims to change the way assault firearms are defined in Virginia. As currently drafted, the legislation would amend Virginia law to limit the types of firearms that can be manufactured, owned, and sold in the state.
Given the history of gun ownership and gun rights activism in Virginia, the bill has become a contentious political issue. Considering the consequence of the matter, it is important to understand what the bill actually says and what effects it would have on gun rights in the Commonwealth of Virginia. We want to provide you with the facts surrounding the proposed legislation.
Details of SB16: Expanding the Definition of Assault Firearms
The Current Definition of Assault Firearms vs. the Proposed Expanded Definition
One of the most controversial aspects of SB16, as it was initially drafted, is the way in which it expands the definition of the term “assault firearm” for the purposes of Virginia law. Under the old definition (still current law as of January 2020), an assault firearm is defined as follows:
- “Any semi-automatic center-fire rifle or pistol which expels single or multiple projectiles by action of an explosion of a combustible material and is equipped at the time of the offense with a magazine which will hold more than 20 rounds of ammunition or designed by the manufacturer to accommodate a silencer or equipped with a folding stock.”
SB16 seeks to dramatically expand the definition of the term. Here are four important ways in which the bill would alter the meaning of assault firearm:
- A Reduced Magazine Capacity for Fixed Magazines: SB16 defines an assault firearm as a semi-automatic center-fire rifle or a semi-automatic center-fire pistol with a fixed capacity that is in excess of 10 rounds.
- Automatic Classification for Certain Characteristics for Detachable Magazines: Beyond magazine capacity, SB16 also defines a semi-automatic center-fire rifle that has a detachable magazine as an assault weapon if it contains any of the following specific characteristics: 1. A folding/telescoping stock, 2. A protruding pistol grip, 3. A thumphole stock, 4. A protruding second hand grip for the non trigger hand, 5. Bayonet mounts, grenade launchers, or flare launchers, 6. Silencers, 7, Flash suppressors, 8. Muzzle compensators.
- Revolving Cylinders on Shotguns: Under the definition included in SB16, all shotguns with revolving cylinders will be classified as assault firearms
- Semi-automatic Shotguns With Certain Characteristics: The bill also defines a semi-automatic shotgun with any of the following features as an assault firearm: 1. A folding/telescoping stock, 2. A thumbhole stock, 3. A protruding pistol grip, 4. The capacity to take a detachable magazine; and 5. A fixed magazine capacity higher than seven rounds.
To be clear, the proposed expansion of the definition has significant implications for Virginia’s current and prospective gun owners in Virginia. Many relatively common semi automatic firearms would be deemed assault weapons should this version of SB16 become law. As an example, the AR-15, often called the most popular rifle country, would be considered an assault firearm.
Prohibit Assault Firearms
According to the Virginia Legislative Information System, the primary aim of SB16 is to expand the definition of an “assault firearm” and to prohibit any person from “importing, selling, transferring, manufacturing, purchasing, possessing, or transporting an assault firearm.” Violating this provision would be a Class 6 felony. Under Virginia law, a class 6 felony is punishable by between one and five years in prison and a $2,500 fine.
Ban on High Capacity Magazines
Beyond expanding the definition of assault firearms, the bill also puts new restrictions on high capacity magazines. Indeed, the bill would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor “to import, sell, barter, or transfer any firearm magazine designed to hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.” Under Virginia law, Class 1 misdemeanors are punishable by up to 12 months in prison and a $2,500 fine.
Prohibit High Capacity Shotguns in Public
Finally, the bill would also prohibit a person from carrying a shotgun in a public place “with a magazine that will hold more than seven rounds of the longest ammunition for which it is chambered.” This amendment would expand this prohibition throughout Virginia, whereas it is currently a prohibition only in some counties.
Current Virginia Gun Law and Amendments Under SB16
As you learn more about SB16, it is important to understand its implications in relation to existing Virginia gun law. SB16 is not an attempt to limit gun ownership or to create consequences for certain forms of gun ownership or possession in the state where none currently exist. While it would expand gun laws and prohibitions in the state if enacted, it is important to understand that Virginia does have some gun laws in place that currently limit the possession or ownership of firearms in particular circumstances.
To be clear, the bill amends and reenacts currently existing Virginia law connected to gun ownership, and it places additional limits on firearm manufacture, possession, sale, and purchase in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The law as it presently exists places limitations on gun ownership and possession in the state. For example, prior to the introduction of SB16 and at present, Virginia gun laws include some of the following provisions:
- Background checks occur prior to the purchase of a firearm from federally licensed gun dealers through the Department of State Police;
- Licenses are required for concealed carry (Code of Va. § 18.2-308), and an applicant for a concealed carry permit must be at least 21 years old;
- Prohibition against carrying particular loaded semi-automatic firearms and certain types of shotguns in public places in certain counties, including but not limited to carrying on public streets and public parks;
- Prohibition against carrying firearms of any type in places of worship, in courthouses, or in airports;
- Convicted felons and many people adjudicated as juvenile delinquents are prohibited from possessing or transporting a firearm of any type (Code of Va. § 18.2-308.2); and
- Certain regulations pertaining to gun shows in Virginia.
Responses to SB16 in Virginia
In response to the proposed legislation, a number of communities in Virginia have declared themselves to be Second Amendment sanctuaries. According to reporting from the Richmond Free Press, more than 100 communities across Virginia—both counties and independent cities—have adopted Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions in opposition to proposed gun control regulations, including SB16.
Of course, many others in Virginia support the passage of new gun laws and the amendments to currently existing law. Indeed, SB16 has support from a number of key officials and many newly elected legislators.
According to University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger, the Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions are largely symbolic since state gun laws are enforced by state police, not by individual counties or cities. Still, the local measures make clear that this is a controversial issue across Virginia.
Seek Advice from a Virginia Criminal Defense Attorney
At Whitestone Young, PC, our Virginia criminal defense lawyers are committed to providing aggressive, client-focused legal representation to communities in Fairfax County and throughout Northern Virginia. If you have questions about how SB16 could affect you or if you need assistance building a strong defense for a firearms charge, please contact our law firm for a strictly confidential initial consultation.