Thursday, January 24, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — The heartbroken families of the Virginia Tech shooting victims suffered a second and probably final legislative defeat yesterday in their bid to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from buying firearms at gun shows.

The Courts of Justice Committee voted 9-6 yesterday to reject legislation closing the so-called gun-show loophole, then sent the measure to the Virginia State Crime Commission for a year of study. Because a House committee last week rejected similar legislation, the issue appears to be dead for this General Assembly session.

The bill would have required private sellers to obtain criminal background checks on buyers at gun shows, just as federally licensed dealers must do. Felons and people with mental problems that a court deems a danger to themselves are among those the checks are intended to bar from buying guns.

A deranged student who killed 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech before committing suicide did not buy his firearms at a gun show, but families of the victims supported the bill as one way to prevent a similar tragedy.

Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin was wounded in the shootings, watched as the committee wrangled over details of the bill only to sidetrack it to the Crime Commission.

“I think they’ve taken a backdoor approach and put it off on someone else because they didn’t have the guts to make a decision in front of us, in front of the people of Virginia,” Mr. Goddard told reporters.

The move delighted gun-rights advocates, who vigorously opposed the measure.

“It’s a victory for law-abiding gun owners,” said Joel Partridge, state liaison for the National Rifle Association. “There’s no evidence this bill would prevent future Virginia Tech scenarios from happening.”

Gun-rights groups donated $15,250 to seven committee members during the four-year Senate election cycle ending Dec. 31, according to campaign finance data compiled by the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project. Six of them voted against the measure.

The seventh, Sen. Robert Creigh Deeds of Bath County, proposed and voted for the revised version of the bill that ultimately was rejected.

His substitute exempted concealed weapons permit holders from the background check by private sellers. It also exempted sales of antique firearms and clarified that only sales conducted in space leased by gun show promoters are covered.

Mr. Deeds, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, sought to appeal to voters in the vote-rich Northern Virginia suburbs who favor gun controls without alienating his pro-gun rural base. Also, Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, strongly supports closing the loophole.

“It’s important that we respond in some fashion to the tragedy at Virginia Tech and the focus the families have put on this,” Mr. Deeds said.

Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said the governor was disappointed by the committee’s action.

“He has said many times that either you believe a felon should be able to buy a gun or you don’t,” Mr. Hickey said. “This vote indicates that some believe a felon should be able to buy a gun at a gun show.”

Supporters of the legislation were willing to accept Mr. Deeds’ substitute, although they viewed it as weaker than the original sponsored by Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, Richmond Democrat, but gun-rights advocates still opposed it.

“I don’t think these changes are effectively moving us toward a middle ground,” Mr. Partridge told the committee.

After the panel rejected the bill, Mr. Marsh was the only member who opposed sending it to the Crime Commission. “I fear it’s a burying ground,” he said.

Senators who serve on the commission disagreed and pledged to come back with a recommendation before the legislative session next year.

“It will not languish there,” said Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, who voted against the bill. “We recognize the public concern.”

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