- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2000

RICHMOND A House of Delegates committee yesterday rejected a bill that would have allowed Fairfax County to ban guns in county buildings, the fifth consecutive year such a bill has failed.

Yesterday's margin of failure in the House Militia and Police Committee was eight votes, wider than last year, when it fell two votes short.

The vote indicates it is unlikely other gun legislation, introduced by Northern Virginians to close loopholes that allow guns in schools in very limited circumstances, will pass the committee.

Virginia lawmakers, however, are poised to make sure no Virginia city or county can sue gun manufacturers for the damage caused by violent criminals.

Thirty cities in the country have filed such lawsuits already. But a future suit won't come from the Old Dominion, given the determination of Republicans and some Democrats to draw a line on policy-making in the courts.

Gun bills produce some of the best political theater in Virginia, where adults with clean records can carry concealed weapons by simply filling out a courthouse form. This year is no exception.

The opening act began during the fall election season, when gun restrictions long an accepted part of the Maryland and D.C. legal landscape became a campaign issue for suburban lawmakers, especially in Northern Virginia.

In February, the assembly put restrictions on rural students' right to drive to school with a hunting rifle in the car. The original law was meant to make it easy for country students to go hunting before or after school, as long as they kept the gun unloaded and locked in a car in the parking lot. Opponents charged that it allowed "guns in schools."

Delegates siding with Gov. James S. Gilmore III who tried to preserve the student-hunting exception took some political heat in this fall's elections. All were re-elected, however, and some even promised to return this session and close some remaining loopholes that allow guns on school property in limited instances.

One lawmaker who voted both ways on the student-hunter issue, Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax Republican, has submitted three bills to close three loopholes: Prevent guns even when they are part of school programs and safety courses; eliminate the rest of the hunting exception from last year's compromise; and end a provision that allows hunting on school grounds.

Some of Mr. Dillard's bills have already had a go-around before the committee, whose members put the bills on hold, saying they want to be sure gun-safety classes conducted at school as well as military academies and schools with ROTC or rifle teams aren't impeded.

Delegate Roger J. McClure of Fairfax County is the Republican co-chairman of the committee. He said no committee member wants to see "guns in school," but they have to examine the unintended consequences of the bills.

"We already have a number of laws preventing guns in schools," he said. And, responding to fears the committee might take a step backward, he said, "There are no plans to limit any of these laws."

Mr. Dillard and committee members said they are working to reach common ground, but the gap, though not wide, seems deep.

Mr. Dillard told the committee the safety classes don't use live ammunition or firing weapons, but that did not sway some. And Mr. Dillard said he doesn't think public schools need to hold rifle practice on their own grounds, while several committee members don't see any reason that should be eliminated.

If the two sides can't agree, the bills will surely fail in committee.

Delegate James M. Scott, Fairfax Republican, offered a compromise to cover only inside the building, not the roadway and parking lot which would have allow lawful gun owners to bring their guns and leave them in their cars outside. The three Northern Virginian lawmakers present Mr. McClure, Mr. Scott and Delegate James F. Almand, Arlington Democrat voted for the restrictions, but the committee also rejected the more limited bill.

The difference between this year's vote and last year's 12-10 defeat of the same bill is the new members of the committee, which must approve gun bills before they go to the full House.

In creating committee assignments the new Republican Speaker of the House S. Vance Wilkins, dropped five Democrats and two Republicans who supported some restrictions last year. Their replacements' supportive views on gun rights "are well known," one delegate said. Most of the new members supported gun rights in two key votes last year.

As speaker, Mr. Wilkins also controls which committee gets which bill. Last year's controversial gun bill went to the Education Committee, but this year Mr. Wilkins assigned a similar bill to the stacked Militia and Police committee. Even similar Senate bills must eventually go through the committee, and likely will die there.

But the bills forbidding cities and counties from suing gun manufacturers goes first to the House Courts of Justice Committee. They have a very strong chance of passing, especially with a new Republican majority that opposes making public policy through lawsuits.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, said even Republicans like himself who support some gun restrictions will get behind the gun-suit bills because they preserve the legislature's right to make policy.

With attempts to set policy in the courts after failing in the legislature as was the case with tobacco lawmakers want to protect their role.

"Who knows what else may be third," said Delegate John H. Rust Jr., Fairfax Republican.

The bills' opponents say the state shouldn't do anything to tie localities' hands, but they acknowledge that's probably a tough position in gun-friendly Virginia.

"I wouldn't do anything that would prohibit these lawsuits, but I won't be surprised if they pass the Virginia legislature," said Mr. Almand, co-chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, where the bill awaits a vote.

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