RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — After 19 years, the one-handgun-a-month law that ended Virginia's reputation as the East Coast arsenal for criminals has passed quietly into history.
The law, a legacy of former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, faded into oblivion at midnight Sunday, the moment the Republican-run General Assembly appointed for its permanent repeal.
Now, rather than being limited to just one of the latest models from Glock, Sig Sauer or Smith & Wesson per month, you can walk out of a licensed Virginia gun shop with an armload if you have the money and can pass an instant background check.
If anyone mourned the law's passing, it was done quietly.
Gun rights groups, who targeted the law from its infancy, are dancing on its grave.
"It's one of our biggest (legislative victories), I'd say maybe fourth or fifth," said Phillip Van Cleave, who heads the most vocal pro-gun lobbying presence in Richmond, the Virginia Citizens Defense League. It was formed partly in response to the single-handgun limit in 1994, the year after the law took effect.
This year, with conservatives fully controlling the House, Senate and governor's office, they killed it, arguing that it had outlived its usefulness.
Gun control advocates, having battled in vain to save it during the 2012 legislative session, have moved on to other goals such as closing the "gun show loophole" and more widespread and mandatory use of instant background checks of gun buyers.
Police officers, at risk daily from unchecked firearms in the wrong hands, also have their eyes on toughening the 1994 Brady Law's instant background check mandate and applying it to the gun shows and flea markets where private sellers — unlike licensed dealers — may sell to anyone, no questions asked.
The Brady Law is named after James Brady, the White House press secretary who was shot in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. It for the first time obliged federally licensed gun dealers to do background checks to weed out felons, those judged mentally unstable by a court or people under a judge's restraining order.
Rick Rappoport, the police chief in Fairfax City, said "expanding the umbrella" of the background check law to cover more gun dealers and more types of transactions is the most promising frontier in the struggle against unlawful guns.
"We went from a position where nobody was regulated and at some point we brought in federally licensed firearm dealers," Rappaport said last week after a Richmond news conference with police chiefs from across the state.
"There's a whole bunch of people still standing outside the umbrella. So when you talk about that umbrella now, gun shows are the next one to pop up," Rappoport said.
Before the Brady Law and Virginia's monthly handgun limit, Virginia-bought guns turned up with alarming frequency in the hands of thugs in New York and other Northeastern cities.
Federal authorities dubbed Interstate 95 from Virginia to New York the "Iron Corridor" because of the weaponry flowing north from gun shops in Richmond, Hampton Roads and northern Virginia. In 1991, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that 40 percent of the 1,236 guns found at crime scenes in New York had been purchased in Virginia.
Illegal gun traffickers hid their activities by paying Virginians with no criminal history to make multiple gun purchases, a practice known as "straw purchases." Guns could also be used as currency by drug dealers, who would take weapons to New York and trade them for narcotics.
Wilder proposed the one-gun-a-month law over outcries from the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups in 1993, when guns initially sold here turned up with unsettling regularity.
On Thursday, even Wilder was pensive about the law's pending death.
"You consider what's going on in neighborhoods these days — the mass killings and the number of guns, almost all of them handguns — the question becomes, 'Is anyone still trying to do anything about it?'" the nation's first elected black governor, who served from 1990 to 1994, told The Associated Press in an interview.
Sure, the law had already lost much of its teeth. Several years ago, the legislature effectively gutted the measure by exempting holders of concealed handgun permits from the monthly limitation. That came several years after the General Assembly had liberalized concealed-carry standards by eliminating almost all court discretion in issuing the permits.
"For a while, it was ridiculous because (concealed handgun) permit holders could buy as many guns as they wanted, but they hadn't yet exempted police officers from the one-a-month limit," Van Cleave said with a chuckle. "So I could go into a gun store and buy as many as I want, but a cop could only buy one."
But the original rationale behind the law has been neglected, Wilder said.
"It wasn't a matter of who is buying the guns, it was how many they could get their hands on," Wilder said. "Legitimate — or supposedly legitimate — people were buying the guns and then turning around and selling them to people who should not have them and could not otherwise get them on their own."
With Virginia's law now buried, only three states limit the number of monthly handgun purchases, Van Cleave said: Maryland, California and New Jersey.
Wilder knew his law's days were numbered, particularly after Republicans, backed strongly by gun rights supporters, won a three-fourths majority in the House of Delegates and took a working majority in the Senate. As expected, they used their new legislative might to strike the law from the books, and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell readily signed it.
"I could never have passed that law if the legislature had been as beholden to gun rights lobbyists in 1993 had been what it is now," Wilder said.
And that's one point where he and Van Cleave agree.
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.