Open Source Defense

Collateral Damage, Race, and the Virginia Gun Control Bill

BJ Campbell
December 20, 2019   |   12 minute read

One of the most frustrating things about the current gun control proposal envisioned by the state of Virginia, is that the people backing it don’t seem to understand its mathematical scope and potential impact. People within blue circles don’t understand how prevalent the things they’re trying to ban are, among the body of the civilian population. They may have good intentions, but I sense they might not be willing to put forth legal proposals of this scope if they understood the likely outcomes. In particular, the law as currently envisioned will almost assuredly be enforced in a manner even more racially biased than Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk.” And the reason why goes back to the mathematics behind it.

The Bill

The original draft of VA SB-16 bans the import, sale, and possession of almost all semi-automatic centerfire rifles, pistols and shotguns in modern configurations. It also bans the import, sale, or transfer of magazines (including pistol magazines) of over 10 rounds. There’s no buyback, it just makes you a felon for owning these things. You can’t even sell them out of state.

The Grandfather Clause

The current draft of this bill has no grandfather clause whatsoever. It simply says, “turn in your property or you’re a Class 6 felon.” That sent the gun sphere into a freakout, which prompted the Governor’s office to respond with a promise to include a grandfather clause in a later version. This clause states that those with existing firearms on the banned list can keep them if they add the guns, and themselves, to a state registry database. This clause seems ordinary and reasonable to the people promoting the bill, but they don’t see the opposite perspective, which looks a bit like this:

VA Legislators: “We’re coming to seize your guns.”

VA Citizens: (pass sanctuary laws — see below)

VA Legislators: “Wait, we were just kidding. You can totally trust us that we’re not going to take your guns, just put your name on this form letting us know exactly where you keep your guns and we promise not to take them.”

This won’t change compliance rates at all. You’re objectively more likely to lose your gun if you register it. Nobody who was considering noncompliance with the first version will comply with the second version. The optics are clear to them — the state tipped their hand and the citizens have a very clear understanding of the state’s intentions.

I can understand why the politicians backing the bill might have wanted to take this approach. It’s a standard negotiating tactic — demand something outrageous and then when you come to a compromise, the compromise lands more in your favor. But in this case, the approach has obviously backfired, and the list of sanctuary municipalities (see below) grows.

Compliance Will Be Vanishingly Low

In the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings, New Zealand passed a law that has many structural similarities to the Virginia bill, so it stands as a relatively comparable case to Virginia. It too banned semi-automatic rifles, and it too established a registry. But reliable estimates show that less than 10% of the banned firearms in New Zealand have been turned in, despite New Zealand offering a significant buyback and hosting hundreds of buyback events. Consider the following:

  • There is no buyback in the current Virginia bill.
  • New Zealand doesn’t have the Second Amendment.
  • Gun ownership rates in New Zealand are less than a quarter what they are in the United States.

Given the differences, there is no reasonable argument that compliance with the Virginia law as proposed remotely approaches 10%.

How Many People Will This Affect?

Nobody knows, because there are no gun registries, but we can make a pretty good guess at the number by looking at national and state statistics.

Nationally, 62% of gun owners own rifles. Virginia has a 29.3% gun ownership rate. The population of Virginia is 8,571,946 people at last count. This means there are likely to be 1.5 million rifle owners in Virginia, give or take a few hundred thousand. Approximately half of all new rifle sales in 2019 were of semi-auto rifles, but many rifle owners aren’t buying new ones. If we presume (I think this is reasonable) that one tenth of rifle owners own a semi-auto rifle, then it stands to reason that 155,000 ordinary law-abiding Virginia citizens will be classified as Class 6 felons when this bill becomes law, if they don’t turn their guns in or comply with registry requirements.

Another way to estimate this would be to look at the number of semi-auto rifles in circulation. NSSF recently released statistics showing that approximately 17.7 million rifles covered by the ban are in circulation in the United States, which is 4.2% of the 422 million firearms owned by private citizens. Let’s discount the fact that someone might own more than one rifle, and also discount the fact that semi-auto ownership rates in Virginia are likely higher than the national average given the restrictions in bluer states. Presuming those balance out, we get 105,000 brand new Class 6 felons should they choose to not comply.

If we were very generous and presumed compliance would be at New Zealand’s rates, which it won’t be, that still leaves somewhere between 95,000 and 140,000 Virginia citizens in felonious noncompliance.

And that doesn’t even include the pistol magazine restrictions within the bill.

Sanctuaries

The reaction to this bill has been an unprecedented grass roots effort to name most of the state a “sanctuary” against enforcing it. A good map of the current sanctuary effort as of 12/17/2019 can be found at National Review:

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In this map, white areas have not considered becoming sanctuaries, red ones have voted the effort down, and blue areas have passed it. The language on the sanctuary resolutions is intentionally vague, but the context is clear. These counties are openly stating that this bill, should it become law, will not be enforced by local law enforcement.

As one might expect, this map closely mirrors the party results in the November 2019 state elections in Virginia:

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(Image source Virginian-Pilot, prior link)

The blue areas in Map 1 are the ones refusing to implement the bill if it becomes law, but the blue areas in Map 2 are the ones who wrote it. The reason the legislators in the small blue area in Map 2 can pass the bill is because more people live there.

Most of the media coverage about the sanctuary movement that I’ve seen, from the prevailing “blue media” perspective, has been to paint this as a bunch of rebellious yokels standing in the way of progress. This characterization is not only uncharitable, it misses a much deeper problem. A sheriff in a rural county couldn’t enforce this law even if they wanted to. 140,000 armed citizens in noncompliance would account for 1.6% of the entire Virginia population. Best estimates of the Syrian civil war show that even at it’s peak, only 1% to 2% of the nation were active combatants, counting all sides. And the noncompliant gun owners have home turf, and are probably better equipped and better marksmen than many of the folks in Syria. The barrier to enforcement isn’t just ideological, it’s functional.

Even if I hated guns, as a local sheriff in a rural county I would quit my job before I enforced this thing. This is clearly above the pay grade of the local sheriff’s department out in the boondocks. Perhaps not in the metro areas of Virginia, though. We’ll return to that in a moment, when we finally circle back to the “racism” alluded to in the oh-so-provocative headline.

Continuing our thought experiment, how are the legislators in Virginia Beach, Richmond, and the DC suburbs going to enforce this law on the rest of the state?

Send in the National Guard

When pressed on the “but how?” question, Virginia legislators generally punted back to Governor Northam, but state Rep. Donald McEachin lit the fuse on a media bomb when he mentioned that Northam could send in the National Guard.

Let’s be clear, this is not going to happen for several reasons. But first let’s look at the case that it could. This is the case as I understand it:

If a soldier in the Guard refused to follow orders, they’d be likely subject to Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) action and would face court-martial, dishonorable discharge, and suspension of benefits. Everyone in the National Guard leadership up to and including the state Adjutant General is a commissioned officer and subject to similar UCMJ action. The Adjutant General reports to both the Governor and the Secretary of Defense. I am very unclear on what he’s supposed to do if he gets conflicting orders.

The total force capacity of the Virginia National Guard is about 7200 soldiers, with a little under 2000 additional members such as airmen, administrators, and such. That’s about a 20:1 numbers disadvantage compared to our projected felonious noncompliant population. Obviously they’re not going to meet on some pitched battlefield, but a strong case could be made that the Virginia National Guard is simply not big enough to enforce this. Further, the Venn Diagram overlap of [national guard members] and [people who own AR-15s and are pretty cool with the Second Amendment] is probably quite large. Would the first order of business for the National Guard be to raid themselves?

Before anyone goes to sleep with visions of Kent State Sugar plums dancing in their heads this Christmas, they need to seriously consider the case that the National Guard might not even be up to the task if they wanted to, which they almost assuredly don’t. I’m not a huge fan of reading between the lines, but the words from the Adjutant General himself are worth reading.

What Will Happen to Second Amendment Sanctuaries

To understand what’s most likely to happen, we should take a look at what normally happens when a municipality tells a regional or federal government to piss up a rope. We have several cases to examine, because “sanctuary” movements are cropping up all over, in a bipartisan way, wherever we see the sorts of regional disparity shown in the electoral map above and one bunch of folks tries to push laws on another bunch of folks.

One example of a very public sanctuary movement was the “sanctuary cities” response to Trump’s immigration policy. Could Trump have sent in the National Guard? Maybe, owing to the chain of command link to the Secretary of Defense. Did he? No. The banter was all about withholding federal funds.

Another example is marijuana legal states, which are effectively “weed sanctuaries.” Did Obama send in the army? No. The federal government basically turned a blind eye to the whole thing, and the District of Colombia legalized weed to boot.

Based on priors, the worst that will likely happen to the Second Amendment sanctuaries is that funds will be withheld from them, which will reduce their ability to police crime. That’s an interesting result for a law that is supposedly about “keeping our communities safe.”

What Will Happen Outside the Sanctuaries

It’s clear that this bill will not end up being a statewide ban on this class of firearms, but specifically a ban on them within a small number of non-sanctuary municipalities, with a state-wide ban on sale. This means all sales will become peer-to-peer, with no NICS background check. And turning the entire Commonwealth into one giant “gun show loophole” is probably not what the bill’s authors intended. But what’s worse is what the enforcement within these communities will probably look like. Let’s look at another map:

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This map comes from the racial dot map, a fabulous interactive mapping tool managed by the Cooper Center at, ironically enough, the University of Virginia. Blue dots are white people, green dots are black people, and so on.

Where are the green dots on this map?

The green dots are in the places where the ban will be enforced. The green dots are in the metro areas where the local law enforcement agencies are more likely to have MRAP tanks. The green dots are where no-knock raids happen and people get shot. The green dots are where Black Lives Matter.

This is where the proposed law will be enforced. A law enforcement agency in these areas is not going to raid the suburbs. If anyone raids anything, they’re going to start in the places with the most crime and work their way out.

Guess who gets raided.

And all over a class of weapons used in only a few hundred deaths per year, nationwide.

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