Amherst County residents raise their hands to show support for their county's "Second Amendment Sanctuary" resolution. November 19, 2019. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

AMHERST — In an overflowing meeting room, speakers repeatedly invoked the Virginia-born Founding Fathers who saw fit to enshrine firearms in the U.S. Constitution.

One man said the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump — which he suggested could be a “coup” — shows the need for an armed citizenry capable of standing up to tyranny. Another raised the possibility that, if Americans can’t keep their guns, they may one day have to “do like in Hong Kong,” where pro-democracy protesters are using improvised weapons like bows, firebombs and catapults to resist authorities.

“The time is coming,” said Jeff Wade, an assistant pastor at a Baptist church in Madison Heights. “I’m mighty afraid that we’re going to have to defend ourselves because of what we believe in. Not only on the Second Amendment, but on any other issue that the government declares to be right, but God declares to be wrong.”

Though the spirit of rebellion was running high among the crowd of well over 300 that packed the Amherst County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday night, the paper before the board was comparatively mild. 

Amherst — a rural county of almost 32,000 people north of Lynchburg — was set to declare itself a “Second Amendment Sanctuary,” following a mostly symbolic trend sweeping the countryside after Democrats triumphed in this month’s General Assembly elections while promising to enact tougher gun laws. With legislative majorities taking power for the session that begins in January, Democrats are expected to push for universal background checks, red flag laws that would allow authorities to take guns from people deemed to be a threat, bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines and other measures.

Co-opting language some progressive cities have used to signal their immigrant-friendliness, Amherst officials were preparing to vote on a draft that declared gun rights “part of the fabric” of their county, something to be “respected and celebrated.”

Though the concept is new to Virginia, conservative localities in several other states have already branded themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, declaring that they support gun rights and oppose laws that could infringe upon them.

On Tuesday, Amherst’s leaders told the crowd they were prepared to pass the resolution, but they wanted to take a few days to fine-tune it for a future meeting.

Board Chairman Jimmy Ayers, a former sheriff, said no laws will be able to keep guns away from criminals who want them and suggested gun violence is caused by bad parenting.

“We’ve become a society now that folks are not made to be accountable and responsible for their actions. That is the problem,” Ayers said.

At least seven counties — Carroll, Charlotte, Campbell, Appomattox, Patrick, Pittsylvania and Dinwiddie — have passed gun sanctuary resolutions, according to the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun lobbying group helping to organize the effort.

By the time lawmakers return to Richmond in January, dozens more could follow.

Philip Van Cleave, the president of VCDL, predicted a “tsunami” of gun sanctuary resolutions.

Gun lobbyist Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Van Cleave said. “Not with Virginia Tech. Not with any of these other things that have come up with Obama and everything else.”

Asked if he’s concerned that stoking defiance of soon-to-be-enacted laws could contradict the notion that his group is made up of responsible, law-abiding gun owners, Van Cleave said “you’re not required to obey an unconstitutional law.”

“That’s where the question is. Is it unconstitutional or not,” he said. “And some of that will be settled in the courts.”

The wave of local resolutions are a sign of the conservative backlash the new Democratic majorities can expect next year as they work to pass their gun proposals. But, on their own, the resolutions have little real-world impact beyond the message they send about where a particular community stands.

In a statement, Attorney General Mark Herring’s office said the resolutions “appear to be nothing more than symbolic.”

“It’s not clear what a Second Amendment sanctuary is, what its proponents are hoping to accomplish, or what authority they think they have to preemptively opt out of gun safety laws, but if the Virginia Citizens Defense League is circulating it you can bet it’s a bad idea,” said Herring spokeswoman Charlotte Gomer. “If the General Assembly passes new gun safety laws, as Virginia voters demanded just two weeks ago, we expect that everyone will follow the law and keep their citizens safe.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam said Northam’s gun proposals are “basic, commonsense measures that any responsible gun owner should support.”

“Let’s be clear, as the results of this election prove, Virginians are demanding their legislators take real action to combat gun violence and save lives,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Sen. Dick Saslaw, the Fairfax Democrat will will retake his post as majority leader come January, didn’t mince words about those pushing the idea of gun sanctuaries.

“They’re delusional,” Saslaw said.

Outgoing House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, who will continue to lead the House GOP as minority leader next year, said the resolutions were an understandable show of opposition by people displeased with the elections and what the results will bring.

“They are rightly up in arms about the notion that they would be made to be criminals overnight,” Gilbert said.

Before the Amherst supervisors discussed the resolution, Ayers asked everyone in the room who supported the resolution to raise their hand. The support appeared to be unanimous, but only because the lone voice of dissent was waiting in the hallway because she couldn’t get in.

When her name was called to speak, Gloria Witt, a representative from the Amherst NAACP, took the lectern in front of the overwhelmingly white crowd and asked: “What are you afraid of?”

“It’s not about taking your guns,” Witt said. “And the fact that all of Amherst County would show up in an outcry to stand against what might happen … What does that say about all these little counties?”

Describing herself as a “country girl,” Witt said all the men in her family have guns, but she sees no reason to oppose universal background checks and bans on military-style weapons. 

“As an African-American female, it’s quite interesting that you can get this kind of energy around something like this when we’re killing people with guns that were designed for military use,” Witt said as some in the crowd murmured disapproval. “Shooting an animal is one thing. Target practicing is another one. Having a gun that will shoot 50 rounds in 30 seconds, I argue, is not necessary.”

Supporters of the sanctuary resolution in Amherst portrayed gun control as a threat to rural traditions, something that would punish people in places like Amherst for violence happening elsewhere.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League handed out pro-gun stickers on Capitol Square. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Lowell Bowling Jr., a contractor, said he’s worried Virginia’s gun laws will soon be written by city-dwellers who aren’t used to shooting their own food or having to kill predators to protect a farm.

“Around here, it’s a way of life,” Bowling said. “Most people were raised with ‘em. Our children are raised with ‘em.”

Benny F. Woody Jr., who described himself as a 76-year Amherst resident, said he was concerned about the hunting ramifications of a bill that would prevent anyone under 18 from handling a firearm without adult supervision. Under current state law, it’s illegal for adults to let children under the age of 12 handle a gun without supervision.

“My grandsons have been hunting since they were 9 and 10 years old. They know what’s right and know what’s wrong. They know gun safety,” Woody said.  “And it’s unfair to them to take away something they’ve loved for all these years.”

Though some supporters acknowledge the resolutions are symbolic, Van Cleave suggested counties could go a step further once new gun laws are enacted.

“The county can direct its employees not to enforce unconstitutional gun laws,” Van Cleave said.

Regardless of action by county boards, rural sheriffs, elected officials who serve as the chief law enforcement officers for their communities, could also wade into the gun debate.

In Southwest Virginia’s Lee County, Sheriff Gary Parsons already has.

“I want to assure the citizens of Lee County that me and my officers will stand up to any federal or state agency that attempts to infringe upon our gun rights,” the sheriff’s office said in a Nov. 18 Facebook post.

In an interview, Parsons struck a more nuanced tone, saying he sees “some viability” in the idea of red flag laws, as long as there’s due process involved and it’s not used as a “weapon against people.” He said the post was meant to convey that his office would not participate in any effort to seize newly banned guns that were once legal.

“I can’t affect what guns are allowed to be sold in the future,” Parsons said. “And I don’t know if we’re even looking at that.”

 

Mercury reporter Ned Oliver contributed to this report.