Imagine, if you will, a rare case of a gun bill coming up that both the National Rifle Association and various gun control groups agreed on.
I know, it sounds like one of the signs of the apocalypse, but if you found a bill like that, you’d imagine passing it would be a slam dunk in just about any state, right? I mean, you’ve got all the cover in the world regardless of your political party to vote for it.
Well, there was a bill like that and guess what? It didn’t pass.
At a legislative hearing last month, something so unusual happened some in the room joked it should go down as an important moment in history: The NRA and gun-control groups agreed a Democratic gun bill was good enough to make it through a Republican committee.
“So Jesus is coming any minute,” quipped Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, as the committee advanced the bill creating clearer punishments for people caught with firearms that have been made untraceable by having their serial numbers filed off.
But the miracle turned out to be a mirage.
The bill had passed both legislative chambers in some form, but efforts to reach a final deal broke down last week as lawmakers realized they couldn’t agree after all, even on a relatively small tweak to the state’s gun laws.
The problem is that small tweak was actually significant when you consider what the bill is dealing with.
See, as things stand, it’s already illegal to deface the serial number on a firearm in Virginia. However, if someone is found with such a defaced serial number, prosecutors have to prove they defaced it. That’s not exactly easy to do without a witness who either saw the accused to it or who the accused told he or she defaced the serial number.
So, that should be an easy fix, right? Well, not so much.
The proposed law made it a violation to “knowingly” possess or sell a gun defaced in a way that prevents authorities from tracking its origin or ownership history. It would’ve brought state law more in line with federal law, which already makes deliberately unmarked guns illegal as long as authorities can prove a tie to interstate commerce.
Republican legislators had tried to fine-tune the proposal to create more legal protections for gun owners. Democrats felt those changes would defeat the bill’s purpose, leaving prosecutors with a law that would be too difficult to apply since the offense often involves someone deliberately trying to hide their tracks.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, testified for the bill in legislative hearings, suggesting it would clean up a clunky, outdated law that could potentially get gun owners in trouble for inadvertent damage to their firearm.
“If you were hunting and your gun fell and it scratched across barbed wire that would deface it,” Van Cleave said. He also applauded a carveout in the bill that exempts antique firearms, suggesting someone might want to scratch a Nazi emblem off a World War II-era pistol.
Those kinds of things can and do happen, so it’s not difficult to imagine why Republicans would want some kind of exemptions and protections for those kinds of actions.
It shouldn’t have been too difficult to find common ground even with those requests, but it seemed the Democrats didn’t care enough to try and see where GOP lawmakers were coming from.
As a result, no bill has been passed.
Of course, we already see how Democrats are framing this by saying it would make the law essentially useless for prosecution, but it still seems to me that middle ground could have been found.
But, it didn’t. Considering what Van Cleave mentioned as potentially being a problem under the Democrats’ preferred version, it also sounds like it was for the best that the rare unicorn gun bill–one both sides seemed to agree on–turned out to be an illusion after all.