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The Usual Suspects 

Among this year’s gun bills, a Republican state senator calls for the end of gun-free zones.

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State Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, says an end to gun-free zones would prevent mass shootings like the recent Virginia Beach municipal building massacre.

Chase says she may introduce a bill calling for the end of such zones during the upcoming July 9 special legislative session called by Gov. Ralph Northam on gun control following the shooting. If she doesn't put forward the measure during the special session, she will during the regular legislative session in January, she adds.

Chase says gun-free zones prevent responsible gun owners from countering attacks from mass shooters. Chase is known to openly carry her revolver on the floor of the Virginia Senate to deter threats to her safety.

"These gun-free zones are where a lot of these fatalities are occurring," Chase says. "Gun free-zones are like sheep on a hillside: They're vulnerable to attack."

Chase says at minimum, such zones should be required to be staffed with armed security officers according to the square footage of the areas.

Northam's Opposing Plans

Northam has called for the General Assembly to consider bills restricting access to guns, many of which have failed in previous legislative sessions. In direct opposition to Chase, one of his proposals includes expanding the authority of localities to prohibit firearms in government buildings. In anticipation of the possible restriction, Mayor Levar Stoney called for City Council to draft a ban on guns in municipal buildings and parks. The move follows the fatal shooting of 9-year-old Markiya Dickson in Carter Jones Park in May, as well as the mass shooting in Virginia Beach.

Northam has also called for universal background checks to close the loophole on private gun sales. Federal law requires federally licensed dealers to run background checks on those who try to purchase firearms but that's not required for unlicensed sellers. The governor has also called for the reinstatement of the one-gun-a-month law repealed in 2012, a ban on silencers and bump stocks and other legislation.

Republicans have countered that Northam's proposals would not have helped in the case of the Virginia Beach shooting. City policy already prohibits employees from carrying guns in municipal buildings. The shooter underwent a background check to purchase a silencer and bought two guns in separate years.

Ensuring public safety goes beyond enacting laws that could have prevented the Virginia Beach attacks, Northam says. A statement from his office notes none of his proposals "violates the second amendment."

"None of them would limit anyone from owning a gun who wasn't a felon or a domestic abuser or declared by a judge to be a danger," Northam says.

The National Rifle Association is urging the General Assembly to instead focus on improved mental health services to prevent mass shootings, spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen says.

"If the governor were serious about improving public safety, he would address the underlying issues like our broken mental health system," she says.

Universal background checks would help protect the public from violent criminals, counters Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

"The loophole in federal law that says unlicensed sellers do not have to conduct background checks … is a major way people who are not technically eligible to own guns, including convicted violent criminals and domestic abusers, get their guns," she says.

About 80% of all firearms acquired for criminal purposes in the U.S. were obtained from sources not required to run background checks, according to gun control recommendations published by the Violence Prevention Research Program of the University of California, Davis.

Republicans Want More Jail Time

In lieu of universal background checks, Virginia Republican lawmakers, including Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, advocate harsher penalties for criminals who use guns to commit crimes and mandatory minimum sentences for such crimes. Democrats say mandatory minimums could disproportionately impact African-Americans.

To promote transparency, Northam challenges Republican lawmakers to bring his measures to a full vote on the floor, instead of allowing bills to die in subcommittee as many have previously.

It's unlikely Northam will have luck getting anything passed, at least during the special session, says Robert Roberts, a professor of political science at James Madison University.

But the special session could be a tactic for gaining support in Tidewater and other hotly contested areas in the middle of an election year. Securing Democratic control of the House would increase the likelihood of Northam's measures passing in the future, Roberts says.

If there's a glimmer of compromise, it could be found in a proposal encouraging prisoners to inform police about who may be selling stolen guns, which would be rewarded by reduced sentences. It's a federal procedure Delegate David Yancey, R-Newport News, says he wants to bring to the state level. Some democrats, including Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who introduced universal background check bills as a House member, have voiced support for such a bill.

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax says that he hopes Republicans will come to the session with "an open mind."

"These mass shootings have not discriminated based on political party, race, geography, age and religion," Fairfax says. "We all face a risk. ... So, we need to do something collectively to make sure Virginians are far safer in their communities."

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