Ghost Guns

FILE - This Nov. 27, 2019, file photo shows "ghost guns" on display at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Haven Daley, File)

(The Center Square) – Virginia Senate lawmakers passed a range of gun control measures in a floor vote Monday, including bills to crack down on ghost guns, place prohibitions on where assault firearms can be carried and clarify Virginia’s “Red Flag Law.” 

Lawmakers in the Democrat-majority state Senate largely voted along party lines to pass three gun control measures Monday, forwarding them on to be heard in the House of Delegates. The bills will likely face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled chamber, where lawmakers have already struck down a bill seeking restrictions of firearms on college campuses and a proposed assault-style weapons ban. 

One Republican lawmaker, Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, split with the rest of his party during Monday’s floor vote to support Senate Bill 1067, which clarifies Virginia’s Emergency Substantial Risk Order and Substantial Risk Order statues – better known as “Red Flag” laws. Virginia is among the 19 states nationwide that have adopted “Red Flag” laws. 

Virginia’s law, which went into effect in July 2020, allows a judge – upon petition from a Commonwealth attorney or law enforcement officer – to issue an “emergency substantial risk order” when there is “probable cause” that a person is at risk of harming themselves or others if they acquired a firearm. The order prevents a person from purchasing, possessing or transporting a firearm for the duration of the order. After the emergency order is issued, a hearing is held to determine if a “substantial risk order” should be filed, which carries the same restrictions on possessing a firearm for up to 180 days. 

SB 1067 clarifies what evidence a judge can consider when determining if there is “probable cause” for an emergency substantial risk order. The bill specifies a judge can consider any acts of violence or criminal offenses resulting in injury, any threats or use of physical force against another person, violation of a protective order and any acts of violence against an animal within six months of the ESRO petition being filed. 

The measure also states any reports of “unlawful or reckless” use of a firearm and any conviction of an offense that would prohibit someone from possessing a firearm can also be considered by a judge.

The bill’s author, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, told lawmakers Monday that Red Flag laws are “directly designed to prevent people from killing themselves." Surovell also pointed to recent mass shootings that took place in the Commonwealth – one involving University of Virginia students that killed three and injured two and another that resulted in the death of seven people at a Walmart in Chesapeake. 

Surovell said the UVA shooter was "somebody who had some clear signs of emotional instability, threats of violence, etc."

“It’s not clear whether that ever got communicated to law enforcement or not in a timely fashion, but there certainly were all kinds of factors out there that suggested that that man was a candidate for a red flag order," Surovell said. “These red flag orders are a good thing that keeps more Virginians safe and alive." 

Republicans in the state Senate on Monday raised concerns about the bill violating due process protections, though “Extreme Risk Laws” in other states have withstood legal challenges. In 2019, a court of appeals upheld Florida’s red flag law when it faced a constitutional due process challenge, according to Everytown for Gun Safety

In other action Monday, Senate lawmakers also moved to pass a bill that makes it unlawful to carry assault-style firearms on any public street, public right of way or public park. The bill does not apply to law enforcement officers, military personnel performing lawful duties, or anyone engaged in lawful hunting or lawful recreational shooting at designated ranges. 

Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, broke from the rest of his party to oppose the measure. 

The chamber also voted 22-17 to advance a bill that aims to crack down on the proliferation of unserialized firearms and unfinished frames, more commonly known as “ghost guns.” The bill by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Arlington, would create a Class 1 misdemeanor for any person who knowingly sells or purchases an “unfinished frame or receiver.” 

Ebbin told lawmakers Monday the purpose of the bill is about “keeping guns out of the hands of children.” 

The bills will now move to the House of Delegates to be heard in committees. They are likely to face an uncertain path forward unless the measures can gain bipartisan support.

Staff Reporter

Madison Hirneisen is a staff reporter covering Virginia and Maryland for The Center Square. Madison previously covered California for The Center Square out of Los Angeles, but recently relocated to the DC area. Her reporting has appeared in several community newspapers and The Washington Times.