Despite overwhelming opposition from gun owners and gun rights groups, Virginia Democratic lawmakers on Friday advanced legislation that would ban the sale of some semiautomatic firearms as well as end the possession of high-capacity magazines.
Gun supporters packed a state House committee room and shouted in protest when legislation to ban the sale of assault weapons like AR-15 style-rifles, prohibit the possession of silencers as well as magazines that hold more than 12 rounds, passed out of committee. The uproar caused Capitol Police to clear the committee room of almost every spectator following the vote, The Associated Press reported.
Virginia has been ground zero for the country's heated debate over gun control.
In November, Democrats flipped the state Senate and the House of Delegates, giving them control of both the governor's office and the legislature for the first time in a generation.
Following his reelection, Gov. Ralph Northam vowed to push through new gun control measures, saying it was a top priority for Virginia Democrats. In doing so, he angered gun rights' advocates who believe he is trying to take away their rights. President Trump also jumped into the debate, warning via tweet that Virginia Democrats were threatening Americans' right to bear arms.
Heated exchanges over guns have dominated this year's legislative session. They were also a key topic of last year's legislative elections – particularly after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach claimed a dozen lives – and gun control groups heavily funded Democratic candidates.
Gun owners are descending on local government offices to demand they establish sanctuaries for gun rights across the state. More than 100 counties, cities and towns have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and vowed to oppose any new "unconstitutional restrictions" on guns. And last month, tens of thousands of gun rights activists from across the country flooded the state Capitol and surrounding area in protest, some donning tactical gear and carrying military rifles.
Northam has been able to get most of his gun control agenda passed in at least one chamber of the General Assembly this year, but struggled with the proposed assault weapon ban. Earlier proposals to ban possession of AR-15-style rifles or to require owners to register them with state police have been scrapped.
An estimated eight million AR-style guns have been sold since they were introduced to the public in the 1960s. The weapons are known as easy to use, easy to clean and easy to modify with a variety of scopes, stocks and rails.
"They are the Barbie doll of the gun world," said Nicholas McGraw, a gun owner from King William County who came to protest the bill Friday. He said he doubts the measure, if passed, would be effective.
"They are the Barbie doll of the gun world."
"I have friends that are not going to comply," he said.
Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said a ban on selling assault weapons and high-capacity magazines is needed to help prevent mass shootings, or at least limit the damage mass shooters can inflict. He cited the fact that the shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 had a handgun with a high-capacity magazine.
"Assault weapons are not protected by the Second Amendment because they are weapons of war," Moran said.
Opponents said the measure would make many law-abiding Virginians felons for owning commonly available guns and accessories.
"This bill does not make Virginians safer, what this bill does is make Virginians, law-abiding Virginians, felons overnight," said D.J. Spiker, a lobbyist for the NRA.
The measure faces high odds of passage, as several moderate Senate Democrats already indicated they're unlikely to support an assault weapons ban this year.
The full House is expected to vote on the measure in coming days.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.