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Lieutenant governor candidates Jay Katzen and Tim Kaine take their stands on gun control.

Trigger Issues

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During the years that Jay Katzen was working for the U. S. Foreign Service in Romania, he never saw a civilian with a firearm. But every day he saw countless soldiers parading through the streets with rifles and machine guns.

Katzen, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, says he understood why the communist dictatorship prohibited citizens from arming themselves: Totalitarian governments rule by terror, not by the consent of the governed. Allowing citizens to arm themselves would allow them to wrest control from the state, he says.

More than anything he had experienced, Katzen says those years, from 1969 to 1971, made an indelible mark on his thinking about firearms. "There was no Second Amendment in this dictatorship," he says.

Katzen had owned guns since his youth, but before working overseas he had not seen how a dictatorship could systematically strip citizens of their rights. The right to bear arms is one of the most crucial, according to Katzen. And if elected lieutenant governor, he says, he will do everything in his power to stop gun-control legislation.

But Katzen wants to do even more than that. He wants to overturn a gun-control law that's already in effect: the one-gun-a-month law.

Passed during former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's administration in the early 1990s, the law was intended to curtail Virginia's notorious status as a market for guns used in crimes in other states. But Katzen says it's no longer necessary. Background checks currently performed in Virginia prevent criminals from acquiring firearms, he claims, and as a state delegate, he sponsored several pieces of legislation to repeal the law. "The background checks supersede the need for one gun a month," Katzen says. "If it came to me as lieutenant governor I would support repeal."

Katzen is likely to find a great deal of support from certain factions — gun owners, the National Rifle Association and some political candidates, for example. Jerry Kilgore, the Republican candidate for attorney general, takes Katzen's position. So does Tim Belton, the Libertarian candidate for the 68th District seat in the House of Delegates. "You can't pass a law that supersedes the Constitution," Belton says.

But there are plenty of candidates, including some in Katzen's party, who want to keep the one-gun-a-month law. Gubernatorial candidate Mark Earley, a Republican who voted for the law when he was a state senator, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Warner both want to stick with the current policy.

And Katzen's opponent in the lieutenant governor's race, Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine, thinks it would be a mistake to repeal the one-gun-a-month law.

"One handgun a month is an example of Virginians working together across party lines to solve what was becoming a major problem," Kaine says. "It does not infringe upon the lawful rights of gun owners and includes appropriate exceptions for law enforcement agencies, collectors, and for persons whose handgun was stolen or lost."

Del. Donald McEachin, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, agrees with Kaine. "Before one gun a month," he says, "Virginia was the gunrunning capital of the nation. Legislators as far north as New Hampshire said they were happy [the law] cut down on gunrunning."

But one of the underlying questions about the law remains unanswered: Is it constitutional? That's difficult to say, because so far no case has absolutely defined the parameters of the Second Amendment.

John Paul Jones, a constitutional-law professor at the University of Richmond, says the one-gun-a-month law could most likely stand because the Constitution does not confer absolute rights. "I don't have an absolute right to free speech," Jones says. "Constitutional rights cannot be interfered with so it creates an undue burden. One gun is probably not an undue burden."

Most constitutional scholars think individuals have a right to bear arms, Jones says. Laurence Tribe of Harvard University is one. And recently, two prominent constitutional scholars, Akhil Amar of Yale University and Sandy Levinson of the University of Texas, reversed their views to support the individual-right concept.

But it's not a black-and-white issue because the text of the Second Amendment, like that of many other parts of the Constitution, is ambiguous, Jones says. So legal scholars must discern the intentions of the men who drafted the Amendment. Many of the Founding Fathers — including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Samuel Adams — supported a policy of individual gun ownership.

Regardless of the exact meaning of the Second Amendment, there's no question politicians agree that public safety and crime fighting are important issues. What leads to disagreements is how best to address those issues.

For his part, Katzen favors strict enforcement of existing gun laws and mentoring programs for young people. "The challenges of youth today are so much greater than they were in my time," Katzen says. "We have to be participants in helping them."

Kaine points to the success of Project Exile in reducing crime rates in Richmond and promises to vigorously support existing anti-crime programs. "Tough public safety initiatives like those we currently have as law in Virginia — Project Exile, One Handgun a Month, and No Parole — are just what we need to keep Virginians safe," he says.

McEachin believes that child safety locks will reduce the number of deadly accidents, and he is willing to offer tax credits to gun owners who install them.

Neither McEachin nor Katzen supports "assault weapons" laws that limit the number of rounds that firearms can carry. They support the concealed-weapon carry law, which permits adults without a criminal record to possess concealed weapons. Such a law has cut crime rates in Florida, Katzen says. And he says several studies have shown that hardened criminals — not legal gun owners — cause street violence. "The guns that criminals use are obtained illegally," Katzen says. "These are not the guys who could legally get a firearm because of previous felonies."

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