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Free Lance-Star reporter Chelyen Davis covers Virginia government.

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Bill to increase penalties for celebratory gunfire advances

Think twice before you decide to celebrate New Year’s or the Fourth of July by shooting off your gun.

If that bullet kills another person, it could be the equivalent of manslaughter.

The Senate Courts Committee on Wednesday advanced a bill from Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, to specify penalties for celebratory gunfire.

It was sparked by the death last Fourth of July of seven-year-old Brendon Mackey, who was killed by a stray bullet while he walked with his father to see fireworks in the Brandermill area of Chesterfield County, near Richmond.

Brendon’s father spoke at the committee hearing in support of the bill, saying he hopes it makes people think twice.

“Just think. The bullet’s got to land somewhere,” Mackey said. “It’s hard for me to stand up here.”

Rebecca Caffrey, with the group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said the bill shouldn’t be seen as infringing gun rights.

“We want to make it very clear, this bill is not about gun control,” she said. “It is about stupidity control. … We would like to see Brendon Mackey be the last child killed, the last child injured by celebratory gunfire in Virginia.”

Andrew Goddard, who has been a gun-control advocate since his son was injured in the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, showed the committee a deformed slug he found on his doorstep one Jan. 1 morning — the same doorstep his family had crossed just before midnight the night before.

“This could have hit my family and I feel very strongly that anything that’s called celebration should not result in the death of a child,” Goddard said.

Philip Van Cleave, of the gun-rights organization Virginia Citizens Defense League, opposed the bill, saying current laws already cover this.

“The money would be better spent running PSAs” to tell people “don’t fire handguns and rifles in the air. That would be much more useful in trying to prevent the tragedy that happened,” Van Cleave said.

Some legislators also thought the bill was too broad and not needed.

Marsh said existing laws apparently aren’t enough.

“I’m saying that the current law isn’t working to deter this conduct, so if we increase the penalty, maybe that will deter the behavior,” he said.

In the end, the committee approved a version of the bill that would make it a class five felony if celebratory gunfire results in someone’s death — that carries up to 10 years in prison, the same as manslaughter.

The person could get up to five years in prison for celebratory gunfire that results in someone’s bodily injury, but not death, and the gunfire itself, without anyone being injured, would be a misdemeanor.

The bill is now going to the Senate Finance committee, since increased criminal penalties come with increased costs.

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