The Old Dominion. Mother of Presidents. The Cavalier State. The state of Virginia is known by several nicknames. Before July 1993, Virginia was also known as the "gun-running capital of America."
Before 1993 guns were easy to buy in Virginia compared to neighboring states, and so weapons purchased in-state flooded into the Northeast, where thousands were used in crimes from robbery to murder. A law passed that year under then-governor L. Douglas Wilder limited handgun purchases to one per month. "Without a doubt, these bills will put an end to Virginia's dubious distinction and unenviable reputation as the gun running capital of America," Wilder said at the time, and studies suggested that it put a serious dent in the trade.
Last week the law was repealed under a bill introduced by Republicans Sen. Charles W. Carrico, Sr., and Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter. It easily passed the House 66-32 on Feb. 1, squeezed through the Senate 21-19 on party lines on Feb. 13, and Gov. Bob McDonnell signed it into law last Tuesday.
The question is, was the law working, and if it was, why repeal it? Here's what happened.
Virginia's lack of gun purchasing restrictions, added to its conveniently close proximity to the Northeast where gun control laws are more stringent, made it a prime "source state" for criminals and felons. A study conducted by the Federal Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in 1991 revealed that 40 percent of about 1,200 handguns seized from New York crime scenes could be traced to Virginia.
Virginia had added a background check for gun buyers in 1989, and between 1989 and 1993, 4,500 convicted or wanted felons were caught attempting to purchase retail firearms, and about 700 went to jail because of it. Criminals, however, simply recruited Virginia residents without criminal records to purchase the guns for them, often in exchange for drugs.
Virginia's Southern sister, South Carolina, had been in same situation for years. In fact, Virginia replaced South Carolina as the primary source of guns for New York in 1975 precisely because that year South Carolina passed a one-handgun-per-month law.
So in 1993, Virginia followed suit. Gov. Wilder also signed legislation that would keep juveniles from owning handguns and would toughen residency requirements for drivers' licenses, which gun buyers use for identification. In attendance of the ceremony were the relatives of murder victims. The one-gun-a-month law, which met with severe opposition from the NRA, went into effect on July 1 of that year.
And the new law seemed to be working. A 1995 study from the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence traced gun data from ATF and found that before 1993, 35 percent of all guns recovered by police in the Northeast that could be traced to the dealers in the Southeast came from Virginia. After the new law took effect, that number dropped to 15 percent.
The study also found that guns recovered from crime scenes in New York were 70 percent less likely to have come from Virginia than another Southeastern state dealer, compared to guns bought before the law. In 1996, an American Medical Association analysis showed that the likelihood that a criminal handgun used in the Northeast would be traced to Virginia had fallen by two-thirds.
But over time the bill collected several exceptions, for law enforcement officers, residents with a permit to carry a concealed handgun, and private sales.
So why repeal it?
South Carolina repealed its one-gun-a-month law in 2004, but some think Virginia made a mistake in doing likewise.
Last Saturday, families of victims of the Va Tech shooting of 2007 appealed to Gov. McDonnell, asking him not to sign the bill. One parent, Lori Haas, who lost her daughter Emily in the Va Tech shooting, said in a written statement that "getting rid of the one-handgun-a-month law will make it easier for gun traffickers to purchase handguns in bulk. There have been too many tragedies in other states fueled by guns that come from Virginia, and this will only make the situation worse."
"He said, 'I have a duty to protect the Second Amendment,' " Haas said. "The governor's number one duty is to keep the citizens of Virginia safe."
But Chris W. Cox, the executive director for the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, argues that gun rationing schemes are ineffective, and that the law only burdened lawful citizens. "Virginians know that law-abiding citizens should not have their right to purchase firearms rationed," Cox said. "Rational people understand that effective criminal justice measures require strict enforcement of existing laws and ensuring that the full burden of our criminal justice system falls on the criminal."
"I think Virginians deserve effective laws, and one handgun a month has been overtaken by technology and improved background checks," said Lingamfelter. "Criminals don't go into gun stores, stand there in the bright light, hand over their driver's license and stand there and wait for the vendor to see if they have a criminal record. If you really want to get after gun crime, you get after people who use guns illegally. You don't punish law-abiding citizens."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.