A new state law going into effect July 1 will restore the gun rights of some convicted felons, though not without controversy.
Sponsored by Del. Michael Webert, R-Marshall, House Bill 2286 allows any person who had their rights fully restored in another state to possess firearms in Virginia. Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe signed the bill earlier this month with no changes, amending the current law that prohibits convicted felons in Virginia from owning guns.
Webert, in supporting the restoration of gun rights, said Virginia has long sanctioned the reinstatement of voting rights for felons from other states. He quoted the first U.S. president in making his point.
"This measure is a positive step to help persons who have repaid their debt to society," Webert said. "George Washington once said, 'To err is natural, but to rectify error is glory.' I believe this legislation lives up to that principle."
Culpeper Town Councilman Jon Russell, chairman of the public safety committee, congratulated Webert and McAuliffe on passing "such an important piece of legislation."
Russell said, "Just like restored voting rights, felons who have worked hard to be on the right side of the law should have their 2nd Amendment rights returned. It's refreshing to see there is still some common sense bi-partisanship in the commonwealth."
Michael McClary, with the Culpeper County Democratic Committee, called the legislation "silly," saying it was "an easy lift" for Webert. He said going up against current day "NRA hysteria" about gun rights is political suicide for any Virginia politician, regardless of party affiliation.
"The argument that if we are going to give felons their voting rights then we should give them their guns is pretty undeniable. Hence, the governor's signature," McClary said. "What is a shame in the commonwealth and in the country is that very few politicians are willing to work to try to bring down all the widespread killing, maiming and suicides being perpetrated by our well-armed and mostly unregulated citizens, and of course, the criminals."
Andy Goddard, legislative director with The Virginia Center for Public Safety, an anti-gun violence organization based in Norfolk, said they opposed the legislation during the general assembly session because the wording was and still is confusing.
"It should say Virginia would recognize a person's right to have firearms in another state provided the restoration was done with no conditions. It's not a terrible, blood's going to flow in the streets sort of thing, obviously, but it's just adding confusion to something that already needed to be straightened out ," he said. "The bottom line to this whole thing is it's all kind of moot because it's the federal government that makes it illegal for a felon to have a firearm, not the state."
Goddard disagreed with violent felons ever getting their gun rights restored, but felt it was OK in the case of nonviolent felons, saying existing Virginia law does not specify between the two.
Del. Ed Scott, R-Madison, voted in support of Webert's bill, slated to become law this summer.
"There are a number of areas where it makes sense to recognize rights restored by other states," he said. "When someone has paid their debt to society and earned the right to once more possess a firearm, moving across a state line should not cause an extra burden."
Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, voted against the legislation because he felt its priorities were misplaced. In Virginia, a convicted felon can apply to the governor to get his voting rights back, it's not automatic, but the new law automatically reinstates gun privileges if restored by another state, he said.
"Why are we treating the right to carry a gun as superior to the right to vote?" he said, characterizing the law as inauthentic. "That's why I opposed the bill."