- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2000

RICHMOND Deer have friends in the Virginia House of Delegates, or at least as many as needed to defeat a bill that would have eased restrictions on spotlighting.

Current law prohibits anyone with a firearm in the car from shining a light in a field where deer sometimes graze presumably to try to spotlight the deer, freezing it and making it easy to pick off. The penalty was a class-2 misdemeanor.

The bill, which had passed the Senate before dying yesterday, would have required game wardens to prove the person shining the light intended to hunt. The bill's backers said game wardens, who are charged with policing deer spotlighting, have stretched the law beyond its intent to include passers-by who simply stop and gaze at deer.

"I think what you have are game wardens who are overzealous in carrying out their duties," said Delegate Frank D. Hargrove Sr., Hanover Republican.

Delegate Terry G. Kilgore, Scott Republican, said that in his rural district there are many folks who have to drive out at night to check on their cattle with a flashlight. The current law allows them to be cited, he said.

But the bill's opponents said the change would effectively end prosecutions under the law.

Delegate C. Richard Cranwell, Roanoke Democrat, said game wardens think it would be almost impossible to prove someone had intent to spotlight deer for hunting.

"It looks to me like you're going to gut this thing," he said.

It's a situation most residents in the Washington area probably do not get into much. Until the recent deer boom, seeing a deer in the region's close-in suburbs was rare, and drivers often would pull over to point out deer to their children. If the driver had a weapon in the car, though, that would immediately have been a class-2 misdemeanor.

The measure failed 42-58.

Legislators have put the interests of the gun lobby ahead of the safety of children by rejecting proposals to tighten restrictions on firearms at schools, gun control advocates said yesterday.

Several bills to eliminate exceptions to the prohibition against carrying guns on school property have been killed outright or shelved until next year. Also dead are bills to promote the use of trigger locks and to allow localities to ban guns at public parks, playgrounds and recreation centers.

Meanwhile, legislation to bar local governments from suing gun makers and from regulating gun shows has cleared the House of Delegates and is pending in the Senate.

"Virginia legislators should be protecting children's interests, not the gun lobby's interests," Jim Sollo, president of Virginians Against Handgun Violence, said at a news conference.

Mr. Sollo was joined at the news conference by several other gun control advocates, including the Rev. David Knight of Richmond, whose 21-year-old son was shot to death during a restaurant robbery three years ago.

"Legislators are pliant to the gun lobby, they buckle under pressure, and the people of Virginia are the real victims," Mr. Knight said. "… How many more will have to die while the gun lobby holds us hostage?"

Dr. Margaret Dolan, a pediatric emergency room physician at the Medical College of Virginia Hospitals, said legislators should think of gun violence as a public health issue. She noted that the government has all kinds of safety standards for everyday items that can hurt children.

"A teddy bear has to meet more safety standards for children than a firearm does," she said.

Mr. Knight was especially critical of the House Militia and Police Committee, which he said has been stacked in favor of the gun lobby. Eighteen of the committee's 23 members have received A ratings on the National Rifle Association's legislative report card.

Delegate H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican and head of the Militia and Police subcommittee that deals with the gun bills, denied that the committee kowtows to the NRA and gun manufacturers.

"With some folks, anytime something doesn't go their way in the legislature, they think there's mischief afoot," Mr. Griffith said. "… There's nothing untoward in the membership of the committee."

Mr. Griffith said many of the gun control bills had practical problems that made another year of study necessary. For example, he said a high school rifle team coach was concerned that team members wouldn't be able to bring the guns to school to get on a bus and travel to a competition.

"We want to make sure if we pass any bills, they're drafted correctly and don't have unintended consequences," Mr. Griffith said.

While the bills favored by the gun control advocates are dead for now, they may be revived before the General Assembly session ends March 11. Alice Mountjoy, education chairman for the Virginia PTA, said at least two bills could be amended on the floor of the House and Senate to include the gun control measures.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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