Opponents of new gun laws dotted Capitol Square on Monday as Senate Democrats took up legislation that would implement universal background checks, red flag laws, and limit handgun sales to one a month. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Opponents of new gun laws in Virginia are organizing militias in the state, but promise they’re not planning to use the new paramilitary organizations to launch a violent insurrection against the government.

“We’re just a group of like-minded individuals trying to protect our rights,” said a man standing in the gravel parking lot of an auto repair shop in rural King William County Sunday, where a “call to muster” had asked anyone interested in forming a local militia to meet for preliminary discussions. “We’re not trying to overthrow anyone.”

But how, precisely, organizers believe armed groups fit into discussion of new gun laws – which are debated at the General Assembly and, in the case of laws that pass but interest groups may consider unconstitutional, challenged in court – is not totally clear.  

Some local governments have said they believe the militia designation could offer them legal cover to defy new gun laws. However organizers in King William either would not or could not say when pressed to describe a scenario in which they believed a militia might be useful in the context of the current gun debate.

“Right now, I can’t tell you,” said the man, who declined to provide his name or allow a reporter into the meeting inside the garage.

Militias sprout out of ‘Second Amendment Sanctuary’ movement

So far at least four militias have taken steps to organize in Virginia since Democrats won victories in the November election, which gave the party enough votes to pass new gun legislation requiring universal background checks, red flag laws, magazine capacity restrictions and limiting handgun purchases to one per-month, among other proposed measures.

Statewide polling has repeatedly shown the measures have broad public support, but residents of rural localities, who have seen their political clout shrink with population growth in the state’s urban centers, are loudly protesting the measures.

More than 100 cities and counties around the state have passed resolutions declaring themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries.” In some, law enforcement officers have said they won’t enforce new laws.

The militia movement appears to have emerged as the next step. Two are sanctioned by local governments in Southwestern Virginia, one in Tazewell County and one in Norton.

Officials in Tazewell passed an “order of militia” in December that calls for concealed weapons training for residents and firearm safety classes in public schools. As they moved to pass the ordinance, county supervisors suggested they believed the move would give the county a strong basis on which to challenge any new gun laws because they interpret the state Constitution as giving localities the power to call a militia to arms.

Opponents of new gun laws dotted Capitol Square on Monday as Senate Democrats took up legislation that would implement universal background checks, red flag laws, and limit handgun sales to one a month. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“Our position is that Article I, Section 13, of the Constitution of Virginia reserves the right to ‘order’ militia to the localities,” said County Administrator Eric Young, according to The News & Press. “Therefore, counties, not the state, determine what types of arms may be carried in their territory and by whom. So, we are ‘ordering’ the militia by making sure everyone can own a weapon.”

County officials have since clarified that they don’t intend to actually form a militia at this point and just want to be ready should doing so at some point be necessary. “Our intent is to provide all of our residents the opportunity to own weapons, learn basic survival skills and learn basic military discipline, if they are interested in doing so,” Young told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.

Norton passed its militia resolution last week, which “recognizes the right of all able-bodied city residents who are law-abiding citizens to be part of the unorganized militia” and “affirms the council’s right to set up procedures to muster, regulate and set up a command structure,” according to The Kingsport TimesNews.

Before the vote, Vice Mayor Mark Caruso said, “The word ‘militia’ has gotten a bad name because of militias out west and the media,” according to the paper.

Two citizen-led groups have also taken steps to form. In addition to the King William meeting, residents of Floyd County issued a “call to muster” what it called the Unorganized Militia of Floyd County.

A flyer distributed before the meeting was nearly identical to materials distributed ahead of the King William event.

Among other things, it specified that volunteers must be legally allowed to carry a firearm and provide their own “personal protective equipment, gear and weapons.

“All Volunteers shall understand that this militia is being created for the defense of citizens’ constitutional rights and liberties and shall understand that this militia is NOT being called to muster to overthrow any government office or local/state/federal official,” the flyer reads.

‘I hope that the governor and Virginia Democrats are paying attention’

Republican leaders in the House of Delegates say they see the militia movement as a display of opposition.

“They’re not arming up for an insurrection,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “They’re just trying to establish a legal definition that could perhaps offer them some protection.”

He urged Democrats to take notice. “I hope that the governor and Virginia Democrats are paying attention to what they’re provoking. The fact that it’s gotten to that level should give some people pause that perhaps they’re overreaching,” he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, do not seem especially concerned by the movement. Northam’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, declined to comment Monday.

Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, who last month asked for a legal opinion from the attorney general’s office on the Second Amendment sanctuary declarations, said that “as long as people are compliant with the laws, they can do what they want.”

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax spent a half hour outside the Capitol Monday morning debating gun legislation with opponents of his party’s legislative proposals. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gun control opponents filled a General Assembly building on Monday morning as a Democratic-controlled panel met to take up gun legislation for the first time. An even larger crowd is expected next Monday for a pro-gun rally organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

The gun proposal that stoked the strongest backlash never had much chance of becoming law, and Democrats made killing it their first order of business.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to strike an assault weapon bill filed by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, that would have outlawed certain types of guns altogether, forcing some gun owners to give up their weapons or risk criminal charges.

Saslaw asked for his own bill to be removed from the docket, following through on his earlier suggestion that the assault weapon ban he drafted would not be the main proposal of its type. Northam’s administration has said the governor supports a version of the bill, like one introduced in the House, that would let gun owners keep weapons that meet the assault weapon definition, as long as they register them with the state. That proposal has not yet been considered in the Senate or the House.

Though Saslaw’s bill doesn’t appear to have support, the Senate committee advanced several other high-profile gun bills that could go to the Senate floor for a full vote by the end of the week.

Expanded background checks, red flag law clear Senate committee

In a series of party-line votes, the committee passed bills to restore the former one-handgun-a-month law, expand background checks on gun sales, establish a red flag law giving authorities power to temporarily take guns from people deemed dangerous and give local governments the ability to ban guns in public buildings, parks and at political rallies and other public events.

Democrats hailed the bills’ passage as long-awaited movement on “common-sense” proposals Republicans blocked when they had the votes to control committees.

“These are not bills that are outrageous,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who noted that the one-gun-a-month law was in place for nearly two decades in Virginia before it was repealed by Republicans in 2012.

Besides the bipartisan vote to strike Saslaw’s bill, the committee did not take up the issue of banning assault weapons.

The five Republicans on the committee opposed all the gun bills. The panel’s nine Democrats united to push them through, but some pressed for changes to add more protections for people who could be affected by stricter gun laws.

Though Democrats have long pushed for universal background checks, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, raised concerns that the bill, as written, would cover private weapon transfers as well as sales. He suggested a person on a hunting trip could potentially run afoul of the proposed law, and risk a felony charge, for lending a firearm to someone else in their group.

“One of the things I’ve learned from 20 years up here is that you cannot solve social problems by making things felonies,” Petersen said.

Petersen amended the bill to apply only to sales or trades and reduce the criminal offense to a misdemeanor.

The Northam administration and anti-gun violence groups said they opposed the amendment, and several Democrats noted the bill could change again later in the process.

“Even though I do not like the amendment, I do understand that this is a process,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth. “Like I haven’t given up all these years, I’m not going to give up this session.”

While discussing the red flag law, technically known as substantial risk order law, several Democrats said they were concerned about giving police broad powers to search for other contraband while entering a home to look for guns.

“That aspect of this bill needs a substantial amount of work,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond.

Republicans were unswayed by the assurances that the bills will be fine-tuned as they move forward.

Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said the red flag law would empower law enforcement to search homes even when the owner has not been accused of a crime.

“Every Virginian should be afraid,” McDougle said.

Surovell said authorities can already enter people’s homes for a variety of reasons, whether it’s for overdoses or other medical emergencies or where a homeowner’s hoarding creates a municipal code violation.

“From my point of view, people are making a lot bigger deal out of this than it really is,” Surovell said.

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Ned Oliver
Ned, a Lexington native, has more than a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. Contact him at [email protected]
Graham Moomaw
A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]