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Nancy  Madsen
By Nancy Madsen February 27, 2012

Sen. Janet Howell says it's easier to buy guns in Virginia than vote

State Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, recently complained about socially conservative bills being approved this winter by the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

During a Feb. 10 interview with Al Sharpton on MSNBC’s PoliticsNation, Howell called the GOP majority "a steamroller" in passing legislation to ease gun control laws and strengthen voter identification requirements.

"What’s really ironic with what’s happening is it’s going to be harder to vote in Virginia than it is to buy a gun with what they’re doing on gun control issues," she said.

Is it really becoming easier to buy a gun than cast a ballot in Virginia?

Howell told us her statement was a "rhetorical slur." She cited some of bills that have been approved by the General Assembly this year but did not offer a point-by-point comparison of the requirements to buy a gun or cast a vote.

So we looked at Virginia’s laws overseeing firearm purchases and voting. You have to be at least 18 for either activity. You have to be a state resident to vote in Virginia. But you don’t have to live in Virginia to buy a gun here.

Let’s examine the other requirements.


To register to vote, you must present a document that shows your name and address. It can be a valid photo ID, utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document.

To cast a ballot, you must show identification or sign a statement -- subject to felony conviction for false information -- that you are the registered voter you represent yourself to be. This requirement is being altered by the General Assembly this year, a point we’ll address later.

To buy a gun from a licensed dealer in Virginia, you must show primary and secondary forms of identification. The primary document must be a state-issued photo ID. The secondary identification just needs to contain your current address and can be a utility bill, voter registration card, bank check or hunting or fishing license.

But in the case of private guns sales -- if you buy a firearm from an individual who is not a licensed dealer -- the identification requirements go away.


To register to vote, you must fill out and submit an application 22 days before a general or primary election. The form can be submitted at variety of locations or by mail.

To buy a gun from a licensed dealer, you have to submit to a computerized background check run by the state police. It’s usually completed in a matter of minutes, but can take as long as four days. The background check does not apply to private gun sales, and such transactions can occur instantly.


You can’t vote if you are a felon and have not had your rights restored, or if you have been judged mentally incapacitated.

Many things could turn up on a background check that would bar someone from buying a gun from a licensed dealer. They include conviction or indictment on felony charges, an outstanding warrant for a misdemeanor or felony, outstanding protective or restraining orders, use of illegal drugs, mental incompetency judgement, orders for mental health treatment, dishonorable discharge from military, and conviction on domestic violence charges.

In private sales, it is a felony to knowingly sell a gun to a person who would be disqualified under the instant background check. But there is no onus on a private seller to inquire about a buyer’s background, and no requirement that a purchaser disclose whether he or she is legally qualified to buy a firearm in Virginia.

What could change

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As Howell noted in her interview with Sharpton, the General Assembly has passed several bills this year affecting voting and gun purchases.

The major change in voting concerns what happens if voters don’t have identification when they show up at the polls on Election Day. Instead of signing an affidavit and having their vote counted immediately, anyone who can’t present ID would turn in a provisional ballot. Local electoral boards meet the day after the election to determine which of the votes are valid.

But this provision does not necessarily make voting tougher than buying a gun. You would have no hope of buying a gun from a licensed dealer if you did not present identification. And you still won’t need ID to buy a gun for a private dealer. So the comparison doesn’t change.

Legislators have also repealed a law limiting handgun purchases to one a month. Many exceptions have been put in the law since passed in 1993. But the repeal would not change the requirements for buying a gun in the first place, it will allow you to buy more each time you clear the hurdles.

Our ruling

Howell said it is becoming harder to vote in Virginia than buy a gun..

There are more restrictions on buying a gun from a licensed dealer than voting. The firearm purchase requires more identification. The gun buyer has to go through a background check that the voter does not. And you can be more easily disqualified from buying a gun than you can be from voting.

But there are fewer barriers to buying a gun privately than there are to voting. The private gun sale requires no wait, no identification, and no easily enforceable disqualifications.

We rate Howell’s statement Half True.

Our Sources

PoliticsNation, "GOP leaders push for extreme laws in Virginia," (video), Feb. 10, 2012.

Virginia State Board of Elections, "Registering to Vote", accessed Feb. 21, 2012.

Virginia State Board of Elections, "Voter ID requirements in Virginia", accessed Feb. 21, 2012.

Virginia State Board of Elections, "Voter Rights and Responsibilities", accessed Feb. 21, 2012.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "General Assembly: Halftime," accessed Feb. 14, 2012.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Bolling breaks tie to pass voter ID bill," accessed Feb. 14, 2012.

Virginia State Police, "Firearms/Concealed Weapons," accessed Feb. 21, 2012.

Virginia State Police, "Firearms Purchase Eligibility Test," accessed Feb. 21, 2012.

Virginia Citizens Defense League Inc., "VCDL 2012 Gun Bill Analysis," accessed Feb. 21, 2012.

Interview with Howell, Feb. 22, 2012.

Interview with Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, Feb. 22, 2012.


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