Virginia’s gun-control debate shifts to newly empowered localities

By: - August 10, 2020 12:05 am

Opponents of new gun control proposals rallied near the Capitol in January. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

At a virtual Alexandria City Council meeting in June, a state legislator explained why he signed onto a new state law giving local officials the authority to ban guns in some public spaces.

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, recounted how Richmond-area gun enthusiasts made a point of walking around Alexandria’s Old Town Farmer’s Market last fall with rifles, alarming some vendors and shoppers. They notified police, who couldn’t do anything about it because — at the time — local officials had no power to prohibit guns at public events.

Alexandrians do not want people marching around with guns in our town,” Levine said.

The council then voted unanimously to ban guns in city buildings, parks and at special events requiring a city permit, like farmer’s markets, festivals and political rallies.

There was a decidedly different tone at a Powhatan County Board of Supervisors meeting on July 27. Conservative Supervisor Larry Nordvig urged the adoption of a pro-gun resolution by showing a photo of a dump truck on fire in Richmond and warning that the “mobs” destroying cities could come to the suburbs.

“We need to defend ourselves,” Nordvig said. “The whole doggone country’s on fire.”

The Powhatan board voted unanimously to affirm its pro-Second Amendment status. The resolution has no legal effect and could be undone if, at some point in the future, Powhatan voters elect leaders who favor local gun control. But supporters argued that passing something would send a stronger signal than saying nothing in response to new laws approved by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

The two contrasting votes show how the next phase of Virginia’s gun-control debate is playing out at the local level, with Democratic-controlled cities starting to pass what they see as common-sense bans on guns in public places and conservative localities declaring they want nothing to do with them.

In addition to Alexandria, Newport News has voted to ban the open carry of firearms in public buildings, parks and at special events. Its ordinance included a concealed carry exemption, a more nuanced approach gun owners say will allow people to continue carrying for self-defense while prohibiting open displays of firearms that can frighten others and cause a public stir.

In Richmond — where police had to physically carry a gun-toting provocateur out of a public meeting in 2014 — a preemptive firearm ban in government buildings and public parks took effect with the new law.

Other localities — including Fairfax County and the city of Falls Church — are expected to take up similar ordinances soon.

“Many citizens in the Commonwealth are not gun owners and understand the risks of guns in too many places and the increased risk of injury or death from those firearms,” said Lori Haas of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “City and county boards are responding to their citizens’ desires and wishes and regulating where and when and at what events firearms are allowed.”

Meanwhile, the Virginia Citizens Defense League is spearheading a second push to get local governing boards to pass pro-gun resolutions, echoing their efforts last year to get counties and cities to declare themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries.

As of last week, about a dozen localities — mostly rural counties — had passed resolutions this summer reaffirming their pro-gun stance, according to the VCDL. More votes are expected in the coming weeks.

At the Powhatan meeting, VCDL President Philip Van Cleave also pointed to the recent civil unrest as justification for why gun rights must be protected. He contrasted the governmental response to at-times chaotic and destructive protests in Richmond with the security measures taken for the January rally that drew an estimated 22,000 gun-rights supporters to the state Capitol, an event that ended without violence or property damage.

“Everybody’s looking at this insanity,” Van Cleave said. “And they want to look at their local government at least and say ‘Do we have sanity here? Do I have safe harbor where I live?’ And that’s what this whole resolution is about.”

Before Democrats won control of the General Assembly in last year’s elections, state law prohibited cities, counties and towns from enacting local gun control. That left localities powerless to ban guns at events with potential to turn violent, including the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017.

Though former Gov. Terry McAuliffe banned guns in most state buildings in 2015, that option was unavailable to local leaders who wanted similar restrictions at their facilities. Democratic lawmakers also banned guns in the Capitol building, where they were previously allowed under Republican control.

In Alexandria, much of the debate over the gun ordinance focused on how to fine-tune the prohibition at special events, which also applies to adjacent streets, so that unsuspecting gun owners wouldn’t get in trouble for just for walking by a farmer’s market without making a deliberate show of firepower.

In Powhatan, the debate centered on whether the board should pass something stronger than what the VCDL had suggested by adopting language specifying that local law enforcement would get “zero funding for enforcement of any pretended laws, regulations, judicial opinions, or other edicts” that Powhatan leaders’ deem unconstitutional. That version failed in a 2-3 vote.

Powhatan Supervisor Bill Cox voted against the stronger version, saying that if Powhatan were to start picking and choosing which laws are just and which can be ignored, it’d be no different than the perceived lawlessness of the protests happening in places like Seattle, Portland and Richmond.

“You want to make up your own laws. You’ll decide what you want to do,” Cox said. “And it hasn’t worked very well.”

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, the chief sponsor of the bill in the House of Delegates, said it was designed to be “permissive.” The fact that some localities are taking advantage of their new powers and other’s aren’t makes sense, she said, because different communities experience gun violence in different ways.

“It allows those localities who want to be proactive about keeping their residents safe from the gun violence they’re experiencing to be able to do so,” Price said.

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Graham Moomaw
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 in 2019, 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.