Virginia State Police troopers stand outside the Capitol during the hectic final days of the 2019 General Assembly session. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Democrats used their new majority power to pass a ban on guns inside the state Capitol and the General Assembly’s adjacent office building, a contentious step that set off the first major partisan fight of the session.

The legislature’s Joint Rules Committee approved the gun ban Friday afternoon in a party-line vote. The new rule will take effect at 11:59 p.m. Friday night, in plenty of time to restrict the ability of visitors to carry open or concealed guns during a large gun-rights protest planned for Jan. 20.

“Our goal has got to be to keep everybody safe,” said newly elected Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. “And that’s exactly why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Democrats called the move a standard public safety measure, noting that guns are banned in numerous state Capitols, including red states like Alabama and Arkansas, as well as the U.S. Capitol.

Republicans cried foul over both the policy and the process, accusing Democrats of springing an unnecessary rule on the body with no public notice and mischaracterizing it as a suggestion from the Capitol Police instead of their own idea.

“You certainly have the numbers to do it,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover. “But this is not the way to do it. This is not the way to be transparent to Virginia.”

Even though the new policy only applies to state lawmakers’ own workplace, the bitter debate offered a preview of what’s to come as the legislature takes up a variety of gun-control bills Democrats intend to pass later in the session.

The Capitol Police plan to enforce the gun ban by screening people going into the buildings and closing some entrances, a procedure that could lead to longer lines for visitors, staff and lobbyists. 

General Assembly members and staff are also subject to the ban, but lawmakers will not be searched due to constitutional protections that prevent interference with their duties during the legislative session.

The ban exempts law enforcement, security and military personnel.

Visitors or staff found violating the gun ban will be “immediately removed” by police, according to the policy.

The ban does not apply to the fenced-in grounds of Capitol Square, where pro-gun groups have held annual rallies with armed attendees. The grounds appear to fall under the legal authority of the executive branch, leaving it to Gov. Ralph Northam to decide a gun policy for the outdoor areas.

Continuing a policy that began under former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Northam has already banned guns in executive branch buildings. Under that ban, people carrying guns won’t be arrested immediately, but could be hit with a trespassing charge for refusing an order to leave.

In a statement, Northam’s office said the governor is “glad the legislature has followed suit.”

“The issue of the open space that constitutes Capitol Square is more complicated from a legal perspective,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky. “That being said, the Governor is reviewing options in coordination with state and local law enforcement and in light of incoming intelligence. His top priority is keeping Virginians safe.”

For years, gun-rights activists have fanned out through legislative offices to lobby lawmakers, many of them wearing sidearms and the bright-orange “Guns Save Lives” stickers distributed by the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League. To carry inside the General Assembly buildings, visitors have had to hold a valid concealed carry permit.

Democrats pointed out that Del. Glenn Davis, a Republican moderate from Virginia Beach, had previously introduced a bill to allow localities to ban guns in government buildings. But Davis said in an interview Friday that he was not on board with a Capitol gun ban.

“We’ve had a history at the Capitol of protecting that right,” Davis said. “And it’s something that I think that should continue to be allowed.”

Republicans argued visitors and lawmakers would be left defenseless against safety threats as they walk the streets of downtown Richmond to and from the Capitol.

Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, said he’s felt concerned enough to carry a gun at the Capitol from time to time. He said lawmakers have to be vigilant about their own safety “in today’s society and time.”

“The last thing I ever want to do is to bring harm to anyone,” said Austin. “But I certainly don’t want to put myself in a position for someone to do harm to me.”

Democrats noted that, in the past, safety threats have come from gun-toting lawmakers themselves.

In 2006, then-Del. John S. “Jack” Reid, a Richmond-area Republican, accidentally fired a handgun in his office, shooting into a bulletproof vest hanging on a door. 

In 2017, Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, accidentally left a holstered handgun on a chair in a meeting room open the public, where any visitor could have picked it up.

“I don’t think any of us want to see a child get shot,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “Or anybody for that matter.”

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who has openly carried a handgun on her hip while presenting bills in committees, was in the room for the discussion of the new rule. She did not answer directly when reporters asked if she would defy the rule and continue to carry a firearm, but she called the rule “unconstitutional” and “un-American.”

“The Democrats are liars,” Chase said. “They say that they are for women. But they will not allow us to protect ourselves.”

Col. Steve Pike, the chief of the Capitol Police, said his officers cannot not search or confront lawmakers due to a constitutional provision making them immune from arrest during session except in cases of “treason, felony or breach of the peace.”

“I don’t have the authority to remove them while they’re performing their legislative duties,” Pike said. “I can notify leadership.”

Pike did not comment on whether he agreed with the gun ban generally, saying he would not insert himself into a political question.

As they complained about the suddenness of Friday’s vote, Republicans accused Democrats of making misleading statements that insinuated the Capitol Police came up with the idea for the gun ban.

“This is the advice that we’ve gotten from the security professionals on what they need to do their jobs effectively and keep us all safe going forward,” Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said as he explained the ban.

“I just have to say that this is something that’s been recommended by our Capitol Police,” Herring said just before the vote. “I think there are times when we sort of have to trust what our law enforcement officers are telling us.”

Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, the former House speaker, directly challenged his successor, Filler-Corn, about the way the policy was presented.

“Everyone was here. The reporters obviously took it down,” Cox said. “That was a deliberate misrepresentation.There’s just no way around that.”

After the vote, Democrats said there was no attempt to mislead anyone and acknowledged that they chose to enact the gun ban.

“I think it’s a little arrogant for the party of Donald Trump to start to mince words about truth today,” said Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News. “I think what they’re trying to do is distract from the fact that the voters on Nov. 5th debated this policy and decided that we should not have firearms in this building.”