Virginia might create religious exemption allowing gun background checks without photo ID
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Building on past efforts to grant photo-less ID cards to Old Order Mennonite and Amish communities, the Virginia General Assembly appears set to create a religious-based exemption to rules requiring photo ID as part of the background check process for gun purchases.

Under a bill drawing bipartisan support, roughly 2,000 Virginians would gain the ability to buy firearms using special ID cards state lawmakers approved in 2019, according to the legislator sponsoring the plan.

Del. Chris Runion, R-Rockingham, told a Democratic-controlled Senate committee Monday he was advocating for the exemption on behalf of religious groups mostly located in the Shenandoah Valley that have a “quiet voice” and rarely vote or participate in government affairs.

“These folks are sportsmen and they own firearms to protect their livestock,” Runion said.

Virginia residents without photo IDs used to be able to buy firearms from private sellers at gun shows, Runion said. That access was essentially shut off, he added, when the state tightened its laws in 2020 to close the so-called gun show loophole by making background checks mandatory for private person-to-person sales as well as purchases from federally licensed gun shops.

Under the proposed law, gun buyers covered by the exemption would still go through the regular background check process overseen by the Virginia State Police, but a photo-less ID card would satisfy the identification requirement. A representative for the State Police testified Monday that the lack of a photo wouldn’t impair the agency’s ability to perform background checks.

“We do not need the photograph,” said Chad Rogers, a legislative liaison for Virginia State Police, which took no position on the bill.

Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, asked whether the legislation would allow someone not currently eligible for the exemption to become eligible by joining one of the covered religious groups. Runion noted the photo-less ID law the state already has only applies to people who have valid federal paperwork exempting themselves from Social Security and Medicare programs on religious grounds.

“It’s a fairly high bar for you to do that,” Runion said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill 15-0, a tally indicating the proposal has a good shot at passing the full Senate later this week. The legislation passed the GOP-led House of Delegates 73-27 earlier this month, making it a rare Republican-sponsored gun bill drawing Democratic support.

Senate Democrats have blocked numerous bills aiming to roll back aspects of the breakthrough package of gun-control laws their party passed in 2020. Even as the religious exemption bill advanced at Monday’s committee meeting, Democratic senators blocked several other Republican proposals dealing with gun policy.

One of the rejected bills would have exempted highway rest areas from a law banning guns at state-owned facilities. Supporters of the legislation said it would let motorists, particularly those on the road late at night, defend themselves as they travel through Virginia. Opponents said they didn’t support “chipping away” at the law by starting to create carveouts allowing guns in more places.

Similarly, the committee blocked a Republican bill that would have created an exemption to the gun ban on Capitol Square for people with concealed carry permits.

Another bill dealing with photo ID rules for background checks seemed like it had a chance to pass with Democratic support, but failed after two rounds of voting. The other ID proposal would have repealed a 30-day waiting period preventing people with a brand-new Virginia driver’s license from buying firearms.

Officials said the rule was implemented in the 1990s as a way to prevent people from establishing temporary Virginia residency to take advantage of the state’s gun laws. At the time, policymakers were particularly concerned about gun trafficking across state lines.

The bill to lift the 30-day rule initially deadlocked in a 7-7 vote, with one Republican senator missing. After a Virginia State Police representative explained the origins of the law later in the meeting, the bill failed 6-9.

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