Va. panel kills one school safety bill, weakens another

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A House of Delegates committee killed one of Gov. Bob McDonnell's school safety bills Monday and weakened another before sending it to the floor for a vote later this week.

The bills were among eight recommended by a task force appointed by McDonnell after 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December. The legislation was introduced Feb. 8, with a little more than two weeks left in the 46-day legislative session, and some House Courts of Justice Committee members complained about not having enough time to adequately scrutinize the proposals.

Critics also questioned whether the measures would really do much - a point that the sponsor of one bill essentially conceded.

"To be completely honest and candid, it's a message bill," said Sen. Thomas A. Garrett, whose legislation would increase the penalty for straw purchases of guns. Those are transactions that occur when a person legally buys a gun with the intent to transfer it to someone who is prohibited from possessing a firearm because of mental illness or a felony or domestic violence conviction.

As originally proposed and passed by the Senate, the bill would have increased the "straw man's" punishment from 1-5 years in prison to 2-10 years. The committee amended the bill to simply require the straw man to serve at least one year of any sentence he receives, eliminating the possibility of a suspended sentence.

An enhanced penalty for the recipient of the gun was stricken from the bill. Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the proposed sentence of up to 10 years for receiving more than one gun would be much harsher than the penalty for worse crimes.

"I guess my concern is 10 years is probably more than people get for malicious wounding, attempted murder - all kinds of violent offenses," Gilbert said.

Other delegates questioned whether a tougher sentence would be a deterrent.

"No amount of legislation we can carry here will stop those bent on mayhem and carnage," Garrett said. But he said it would be a mistake "to throw up our arms and say there's nothing that can be done."

Committee members also wondered aloud what straw purchases have to do with school safety.

"We never know what the next school shooter is going to look like," said state Secretary of Public Safety Marla Decker. The possibility that a gun obtained through a straw purchase could be used in a school shooting prompted the task force recommendation, she said.

After amending the bill, the panel voted 11-5 to send it to the House floor.

Another task force recommendation was tabled on an 8-6 vote. The bill would have created a new offense for entering a school while armed or while carrying an explosive device with the intent to commit a violent felony. It called for a sentence of 20 years to life in prison.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, said it's already illegal to bring such weaponry onto school property, but his legislation would allow an additional charge.

"This gives a double dip for prosecutors," he said.

Gilbert said simply adding a new offense to those that already can be prosecuted "doesn't really do a whole lot."

Decker said after the meeting she was disappointed the bill failed, and was surprised the straw purchaser legislation ran into trouble.

"I did not anticipate this," she said.