Northam signs gun-control bills into law

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has signed several new gun restrictions he championed during this year’s legislative session, cementing gains by gun control advocates they hope will serve as a “blueprint” for states around the country.

The Old Dominion has been the epicenter of the nation’s gun debate after Democrats took full control of the General Assembly last year on an aggressive gun control platform. Tens of thousands of gun owners from around the country rallied against new gun restrictions at the state Capitol in January while lawmakers ultimately approved 7 out of 8 of Northam’s gun-control package.

The governor announced Friday he’d signed bills that include requiring universal background checks on gun purchases, a red flag bill to allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from people deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others, and limited handgun purchases to one a month.

“This is an exciting day for me,” Northam said on a conference call with gun-control advocates.

Virginia was once a socially conservative state where lawmakers in both parties viewed gun rights as sacrosanct and the National Rifle Association held great sway.

But as the state has grown more urban and suburban, the gun lobby’s influence has waned. A mass shooting last year in Virginia Beach made gun control a front-burning issue in Virginia and heavy spending by groups backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped Democrats flip control of the legislature in November.

Gun-control advocates said Friday they’re planning to replicate their success in Virginia in other states. John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said his group plans to spend heavily in key battleground states this year like Arizona, North Carolina and Pennsylvania to elect lawmakers who support new gun restrictions.

Feinblatt said polling shows a gun-control agenda is popular in those states and that Virginia is a “bellwether” of what’s to come.

The gun lobby was not totally shut out of Virginia’s legislative session and were able to water down many bills backed by Northam.

“While we still don’t like them, they’re not as bad as they once were,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

Moderate Democrats also balked at passing one of the most high-profile gun measures debated this year: banning assault weapons like the popular AR-15-style rifles.

The governor acknowledged that he “came up short” on that legislation but said he will try again next year.

“I will not stop,” he said.

Van Cleave said his group is readying several lawsuits against the new gun laws and predicted gun owners will elect more gun-friendly lawmakers next year in state House elections

“Nothing (Northam’s) doing today is necessarily permanent,” Van Cleave said.