Update, June 25: On Thursday, a Goochland County Circuit Court judge denied a request to place an injunction on Virginia’s new-but-old law prohibiting purchasing more than one handgun a month without an exemption. The law is slated to go into effect July 1.
Updated June 23.
The newly Democrat-led Legislature in Virginia earlier this year brought back a limit on handgun purchases, which was initially passed decades ago in part to cut down gun trafficking from Virginia to other states, especially in the Northeast. But it’s being challenged before it can even take effect.
Valerie Trojan, a Virginia resident; Brothers N Arms Inc., a licensed firearms dealer; and three gun rights groups — Gun Owners of America, Virginia Citizens Defense League and Gun Owners Foundation — filed suit on June 12 in Goochland County Circuit Court in opposition to the law, which makes buying more than one handgun per month a misdemeanor unless an exemption applies. (The suit states Trojan and Brothers N Arms are located in Goochland.)
The lawsuit, filed against Virginia State Police Superintendent Gary Settle, seeks to remove the limit. VSP will administer the law and oversee applications to purchase more than one handgun in a 30-day period. According to the suit, that will impair Trojan’s “constitutionally protected right to obtain firearms” by having her “engage in the same often delayed and time-consuming background check,” among other things.
In a June 15 press release on the Gun Owners Foundation website, Senior Vice President Erich Pratt (who is also senior vice president for Gun Owners of America) said, “Gov. Northam wants a repeat of this failed law, which was previously repealed in 2012. … In the past eight years, Virginia was ranked as one of the safest states in the country. This shows that the radical push for gun control has nothing to do with reducing crime, but rather is about implementing a disarmament agenda.”
Part of the suit’s argument is that this law infringes on the Second Amendment. As the GOF press release states, “The statute is no less an infringement on the right to keep and bear arms than is limiting persons to purchasing one Bible per month would be an infringement on the rights of Virginians under Article I, Section 12 of the Virginia Constitution (analogous to the First Amendment).”
It goes even further, comparing the law’s requirements to “unfathomable” possibilities that Virginia’s Legislature could attempt, such as limits on “how many times per week a newspaper could be published, how many abortions a woman could receive in a decade, or how many times a court-appointed criminal defense lawyer could be appointed for an indigent defendant facing jailable offenses during a lifetime.”
Gun Owners of America could not be reached for comment.
Jonathan Lowy, chief counsel for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says laws like these are effective ways to curb violence. “These laws are common sense,” Lowy said. “And they work.”
Police recover tens of thousands of guns used in crimes every year that originated from out of state.
A 1996 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found evidence that “restricting handgun purchases to 1 per month is an effective means of disrupting the illegal interstate transfer of firearms.” The study was produced by researchers from the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.
Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month limit was initially in place from 1993-2012, when it was repealed by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed a new version back in April as part of a sweeping effort to enact gun control bills. Those included a “red flag” law, broadening background checks, requiring owners to report missing or stolen guns, and increasing penalties for gun owners who leave guns where minors can access them.
At the state level, only California, Maryland and New Jersey have laws against bulk handgun sales. In addition to California’s law limiting handgun purchases to one per 30-day window, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a 2019 bill that will limit Californians from purchasing more than one semiautomatic center-fire rifle in a 30-day period — though that law is not effective until July 1, 2021. Maryland limits the purchase of “regulated firearms” (handguns, “assault weapons” prior to Oct. 1, 2013, but not rifles or shotguns outside of these classifications) to one per 30 days, with few exceptions. New Jersey has a purchase permit and 90-day clock on buying a single handgun.
There is no federal limit on the number of guns a person can buy at once. The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 does require federal firearm licensees — i.e., people or businesses registered with the federal government to sell guns — to report to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when a person buys two or more handguns at once, or when buying multiple handguns within five business days. But the ATF doesn’t have to do anything with that information.
Gun control advocates, like Lowy, say the prohibition of bulk handgun sales is a straightforward tactic for preventing gun trafficking.
“Gun traffickers often buy multiple guns to sell on the criminal market,” he said, “or to bring to states that have tougher gun laws to sell them.”
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s office will defend the law for the commonwealth. “Previously, the one-handgun-a-month law was in place in Virginia for nearly 20 years and proved to be extremely successful in keeping a large number of firearms off our streets. Both this law and the other gun violence prevention measures that were passed during this year’s legislative session are constitutional,” reads a statement from Herring’s office. “These new gun safety measures were put in place to keep Virginians and their communities and loved ones safe and that is Attorney General Herring’s top priority.”
Courthouse News reporter Brad Kutner tweeted Herring’s response to the legal challenge on Tuesday. It effectively says the plaintiffs — Trojan, Brothers N Arms, and the gun rights groups — are misrepresenting what the law means in practice, would be unlikely to succeed with a Second Amendment challenge even if they weren’t doing that, and have not met the legal standard for enjoining the law anyway.
The suit’s first hearing in Goochland Circuit Court will be on June 25 and seeks to place an injunction on the almost-law. New laws in Virginia, unless otherwise stated, typically go into effect on July 1 — when the state’s fiscal year begins.
This story has been updated to include additional reporting and a statement from the office of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.