Virginia governor's slew of bills heralds progressive new direction for state

<span>Photograph: Steve Helber/AP</span>
Photograph: Steve Helber/AP

Virginia governor Ralph Northam has signed into law new measures on gun control and abortion rights and outlawing discrimination on grounds of sexuality and gender identity, establishing a progressive new direction for a traditionally conservative state where Democrats won the legislature in November for the first time in almost 25 years.

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In a Good Friday signing spree, Northam swept away a requirement for those seeking abortions to wait 24 hours, and tightened firearms restrictions to include background checks and limits on purchases.

“We lose too many Virginians to gun violence, and it is past time we took bold, meaningful action to keep our communities safer,” the governor said in a statement. “These common sense laws will save lives.”

As well as the background checks for all weapons purchasers, and limits to one handgun per month to curtail stockpiling, the new laws impose penalties for those who do not report lost or stolen guns within 24 hours, and allows law enforcement to confiscate firearms from anyone deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

The statement claims Virginia is the 20th state, plus Washington DC, to enact such a law.

The state’s new Reproductive Health Protection Act, meanwhile, “repeals medically unnecessary restrictions on women’s healthcare.”

Among its clauses are the removal of the waiting period and a requirement for those seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound. There are also protections for abortion clinics against so-called targeted regulations of abortion providers restrictions that campaigners say obstruct their constitutionally-protected rights to a procedure.

“No more will legislators in Richmond, most of whom are men, be telling women what they should and should not be doing with their bodies,” Northam said. “The Act will make women and families safer.”

On Saturday, Northam signed the Virginia Values Act, which he said “sends a strong, clear message – Virginia is a place where all people are welcome to live, work, visit, and raise a family.”

According to an official release, the VVA “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, public and private employment, public accommodations, and access to credit.

“The legislation also extends important protections … on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, disability, and status as a veteran.”

Northam said: “We are building an inclusive Commonwealth where there is opportunity for everyone, and everyone is treated fairly. No longer will LGBTQ Virginians have to fear being fired, evicted, or denied service in public places because of who they are.”

Virginia previously had some of the most restrictive abortion laws, and loosest gun freedoms, in the country.

In November, after the Republicans were swept from both state houses, having controlled one or both for a quarter-century, the New York Times examined the reasons why traditional Republican voters in Virginia had abandoned the party, especially in the suburbs. The first interviewee it quoted cited gun control.

The new measures did not find favor with everybody in the state, however. Virginia’s Catholic bishops attacked the governor for signing the abortion law on Good Friday.

“We are deeply saddened and disappointed by his signature of this legislation,” Bishops Michael Burbidge and Barry Knestout said in a statement. “That he would take this action on Good Friday, one of the most solemn days for Christians, is a particular affront to all who profess the Gospel of life.”