VIRGINIA

Va. Senate panel advances 3 school safety bills

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Three school safety bills introduced in response to the December mass shooting at a Connecticut school cleared a Virginia Senate committee Monday, but critics questioned whether the measures would have any real impact.

The proposals are among eight recommended by a task force appointed by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell after 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The governor introduced the bills Friday, with a little more than two weeks left in the 46-day legislative session.

One of the bills endorsed by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee would increase the punishment for straw-man gun transactions. Those are transactions that occur when a person legally buys a gun with the intent to transfer it to someone who is prohibited from purchasing a firearm because of mental illness or a domestic violence or felony conviction.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr., R-Louisa, would increase the "straw man's" punishment from 1-5 years in prison to 2-10 years. Also, the person enlisting the straw man's services would face a mandatory sentence of one year, or 10 years for transactions involving more than one gun.

"Are we doing convictions on straw men?" Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax asked. "Why would anyone bother to get a straw man when they can just go to a gun show?"

A week ago, the committee rejected legislation to close the so-called "gun show loophole," which would have required private sellers to obtain the same background checks licensed dealers must obtain on buyers.

Garrett, an assistant commonwealth's attorney, said he has prosecuted straw-man cases within the last two years.

Gun-control advocate Andrew Goddard, whose son was wounded in the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, said the bill is nothing more than window dressing.

"It appears to be doing something about gun violence without doing anything," he said.

The committee also endorsed legislation creating a new offense for entering a school while armed or while in possession of an explosive device with the intent to commit a violent felony. The crime would be punishable by 20 years to life in prison.

That bill and the straw man legislation could increase prison costs, so they require approval of the Finance Committee before going to the Senate floor.

A third measure advanced by the panel would provide civil immunity to anyone who, in good faith, reports that a person poses a credible danger to campus safety.

Other bills stemming from the task force recommendations would:

- require schools to conduct a lockdown drill once each semester;

- require juvenile intake officers to share information with school officials;

- establish a fund to provide local-match grants or loans for security upgrades at older schools;

- require each school board to establish threat assessment teams similar to those mandated for public colleges; and

- direct several state agencies to develop a model critical incident training program for school personnel.

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