Virginia lawmakers are set to convene on July 9 for a special session, with the goal of hammering out better gun policy. The decision arises out of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) desire for lawmakers to contend with the aftermath of a recent, tragic Virginia Beach workplace shooting in which 12 people were killed by a former colleague.
In addition to the resistance that some Republican lawmakers have exerted in the wake of Northam’s request, this special session could potentially be further complicated by one lawmaker’s potential conflict of interest. Specifically, state Sen. Bill DeSteph (R). DeSteph, who took office in 2014 and whose district includes the Virginia Beach area, holds a license to sell firearms. The matter raises questions about whether or not DeSteph should recuse himself from any key votes taken in this proposed special session, about a mass shooting that happened in the lawmaker’s own district. There is every possibility that matters decided on during this special session might impact DeSteph’s business concern, even if it has been dormant.
ThinkProgress obtained information pertaining to DeSteph’s federal firearm license, the name and address of his firearms business, and details about his financial disclosure forms from American Bridge, a Democratic-leaning opposition research shop, and has confirmed the accuracy of the information through public records.
A spokesperson responded to ThinkProgress inquiries with a brief statement: “Sen. DeSteph has been very public about his [federal firearms licence]. There have been several stories published in the local newspaper on this topic, and he has taken numerous questions from his constituents and neighbors at public hearings.” ThinkProgress has followed up with additional questions about the potential for conflict of interest.
As the Virginian-Pilot reported in 2009, DeSteph — then a Virginia Beach city councilman — sought a permit from the city to be allowed to sell guns out of his home. His stated purpose at the time, according to the Pilot, was that the avid gun collector wanted “to expand his hobby into a business.”
Records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) show that as of January 2014, DeSteph held a Type 01 Federal Firearms License. This license allows firearms dealers to sell handguns and, if they pay the Special Occupational Tax, machine guns and other destructive devices. DeSteph registered a business with his license with the name Beach NFA. The January 2014 ATF records note Beach NFA’s address as 588 Central Drive in Virginia Beach which, according to his state Senate website, is also his current district office.
The latest available ATF records, which extend only to August of 2018, indicate that DeSteph continually maintained his license to sell firearms through that period of time.
Publicly available General Assembly financial disclosure forms do not make mention of the fact that DeSteph has a controlling interest in Beach NFA. This may not be a legal violation: Virginia’s disclosure laws have a $5,000 annual reporting threshold for lawmakers’ income from any business. The most likely case is that DeSteph’s business is insufficiently valuable to merit inclusion. As the rules governing the disclosure of business interests among General Assembly members state, any business that does not have “a value of more than $5,000” is not applicable.
This is most likely the case for Beach NFA. ThinkProgress has inquired if this is the case, but had not heard back by the time of press.
As his spokesperson indicated, these matters have received partial airing in local newspapers. Indeed, in at least one instance, the matter was broached by one of DeSteph’s electoral opponents. According to the June 4, 2019, Richmond Times-Dispatch:
“Sen. DeSteph is one of the problems we have with gun violence prevention and inaction we’ve seen in Richmond,” said DeSteph’s Democratic challenger, Missy Cotter Smasal, who also noted that he has profited off gun sales by selling firearms from a vault in his home. “When he has had a chance to take action he’s refused to.”
Nevertheless, while it’s possible to piece together this information, the matter of DeSteph’s firearms business remains opaque to anyone not actively seeking information about it.
The more pressing matter is the conflict of interest that could arise as DeSteph plays a role in setting future state policies pertaining to guns. DeSteph, of course, has the option to recuse himself from casting votes in cases where a conflict of interest may be possible. In fact, he is required to do so in certain instances. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Virginia legislators are bound by the following conditions:
A legislator who has a personal interest in a transaction shall disqualify himself from participating in the transaction. Does not apply to legislators participating in discussions or debates, provided that the interest is disclosed and he or she does not participate in the vote. Va. Code Ann. § 30-108.
Every senator present in the Chamber shall vote when any question is put or vote taken. A Senator with a personal interest in the transaction shall neither vote nor be counted upon it. Senate Rule 36.
Members present shall vote. No member who has an immediate and personal interest in the result of the question shall vote or be counted upon it. House Rule 69.
Some of the votes that DeSteph has taken in the past, on bills that could arguably be said to have an impact on his business concerns, may fall under the penumbra of these recusal regulations.
In 2016, he voted yes for the Virginia House Bill 206, which would require firearms purchasers to furnish only one form of identification at the point of purchase, rather than the previous mandate of at least two forms of identification. In 2016, he also voted yes on Virginia Senate Bill 715, which requires the Department of State Police to be available to perform background checks for non-dealer sales at firearms shows if requested by a party involved in a transaction.
Both of these bills passed and directly impact the state’s restraints on the sales of firearms, which is something in which anyone with a Type 01 Federal Firearms License would have a compelling interest. Depending on how DeSteph might choose, at some point in the future, to revive or expand his business interests, it is arguable that it was impossible to avoid a conflict of interest no matter how he chose to vote on the latter proposal.
Late last week, ThinkProgress reached out again to DeSteph’s office for clarification on the lack of disclosure and comment on the conflict of interest matters. His office had not responded to these inquiries by the time of publication. We will update this piece if more information becomes available.