Virginia’s new laws on guns, abortion and LGBT rights reflect state’s political makeover

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But the changes in Virginia are more sweeping, reflecting a profound political shift ushered in by Democrats, who won majorities in the state House and Senate in November elections. Together with Gov. Ralph Northam (D), legislative Democrats took full control in Richmond this year for the first time in a generation.

“Virginia is charting a new path — one that is bolder, more inclusive and more forward-looking than ever before,” Northam said. “From protecting the rights of workers to passing historic gun safety laws, from reforming our criminal justice system to combating climate change, we have made generational progress on some of the most critical issues of our time. It is the start of a new era in Virginia, and we are not going back.”

One of the sharpest pivots in Virginia comes in the realm of LGBT rights. Eight years after rejecting an openly gay man for a Richmond judgeship, the legislature passed laws that, starting Wednesday, will ban anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations such as restaurants and stores — a first for a Southern state.

A host of gun-control laws also are taking effect in Virginia, a state that’s home to the National Rifle Association’s headquarters. Democrats made gun control a marquee issue in last fall’s elections after a gunman killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building in May 2019.

Among the new laws are those that: limit handgun purchases to one per month; establish universal background checks; give authorities the power to temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat; require owners to report lost or stolen firearms within 48 hours; increase the penalty for recklessly leaving a loaded gun within reach of a child; allow localities to regulate guns in public buildings, parks, recreation centers and during public events; and prohibit people subject to a protective order from possessing a gun.

Alexandria will take advantage of the new authority granted by the General Assembly by banning weapons and ammunition from public buildings such as City Hall, recreation and community centers, and its departmental offices as of Wednesday.

Some of the new laws will roll back restrictions on abortion that Republicans put in place between 2012 and 2013, when they controlled the House and Senate under then-governor Robert F. McDonnell (R). Come Wednesday, the state will no longer mandate that a woman receive an ultrasound and wait 24 hours before any abortion. Abortion clinics will no longer have to meet hospital-style building codes, and nurse practitioners will be allowed to perform the procedures.

Marijuana will be decriminalized, with simple possession subject to a civil penalty of no more than $25. Previously in Virginia, possession carried a maximum fine of $500 and a maximum 30-day jail sentence for a first offense, and subsequent offenses were a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Another new law will create a statewide database of racial information and other data related to police activity, to determine whether profiling and the use of excessive force is occurring. The Department of Criminal Justice Services will analyze the data. Prince William County’s police department has issued an advisory to the public, saying officers might have to ask more questions during traffic stops to comply with the data-collection mandate.

Voting laws that repeal requirements that voters show photo identification at the polls and provide an excuse for casting an absentee ballot also take effect.

In Maryland, more students applying for community college will be eligible to receive tuition assistance under a new law that takes effect on Wednesday.

The scholarship bill, sponsored by Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), removes a requirement that a person apply for the Maryland Community College Promise Scholarship within two years of high school graduation or earning a graduate equivalency degree. It also does away with a service requirement to receive an award.

Pinsky said removing the two-year restrictions will allow students of any age to receive financial assistance. He said the Promise Scholarship, which was approved by the General Assembly in 2018, had a “less than spectacular” rollout, with only about a quarter of the $15 million set aside for the program awarded in 2020.

Pinsky said he hoped the tweaks made to the need-based program will lead to more students qualifying. “We want to be where we actually run out of money rather than rolling into a following year,” he said.

The number of high-profile bills taking effect are relatively small in Maryland, which had an abbreviated legislative session this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The General Assembly, which normally holds a 90-day session, shut down before its regular adjournment for the first time since the Civil War.

Most of the measures are local alcohol bills, including a measure that allows liquor licenses for barbershops and beauty salons in Anne Arundel County.

Among the others is a measure that requires local school districts to establish a protocol for debt collection for school lunches. The bill is designed to prevent “lunch shaming” incidents, such as ones elsewhere in the country that went viral after some school districts required students to wear wristbands or stamps if their lunch accounts were in arrears.

Lawmakers also approved setting aside $152,000 for implicit bias training for health care professionals who work with women before and after giving birth. The training is aimed at addressing racial disparities in maternal mortality. The black maternal mortality rate in Maryland was 3.7 times higher than that of whites between 2012 and 2016, according to the most recent data available. The training would start in January 2022.

A new Montgomery County law bars residents from using certain driveway sealants deemed to have negative impacts on the environment. Sealants containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon levels higher than 0.1 percent are banned in the county, the first jurisdiction in Maryland to do so.

In the District, the hourly minimum wage will rise from $14 to $15. The 2016 law that increased the minimum wage also required it to continuously rise with inflation.

Fenit Nirappil, Patricia Sullivan and Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.

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