Legislation to ban firearms in and around the Virginia Capitol cleared the House of Delegates Monday on a 51-45 vote, just weeks after heavily armed demonstrators rallied near the building for the second time in two years.
Supporters called the proposal a common-sense way to secure the seat of state government and ensure Virginians can exercise their rights to democratic participation without having to worry about the presence of guns.
“I call this the safe Capitol bill,” said Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, the legislation’s sponsor.
The bill passed along party lines after Republicans criticized an earlier version that would have banned non-lethal stun weapons as well as firearms. Democrats removed the prohibition on stun weapons after Republicans warned it could create safety risks for people visiting and working at the Capitol, particularly women. The bill also covers state buildings beyond the Capitol complex, a more permanent continuation of gun bans Gov. Ralph Northam and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe enacted through executive orders.
Similar legislation is pending in the state Senate and could come up for a final vote Tuesday.
If the proposal becomes law, it’s unclear what it might mean for the gatherings of gun-rights advocates held in Richmond annually in mid-January. Gov. Ralph Northam ordered a gun ban on the grounds of the Capitol ahead of the massive 2020 gun rally, but throngs of armed people evaded that rule by simply remaining outside the fence.
Last year, the General Assembly approved a law allowing local governments to ban guns at political rallies and other public events that meet certain criteria. Richmond officials passed an ordinance doing just that, but the law wasn’t enforced against the few dozen armed demonstrators who showed up around the perimeter of the heavily-secured Capitol on Jan. 14.
Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill focused less on how it will affect displays of armed force in the future and more on what it would mean for self-defense. They warned the bill, as originally written, might prevent women from carrying Tasers or strobe flashlights used to blind would-be assailants.
Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, asked Levine what he’d recommend she carry for self-defense while leaving the Capitol if he was removing stun guns as an option.
“Mace and pepper spray is still permitted under this legislation,” Levine said, adding that legislators can also ask the Capitol Police for an escort to their vehicle if they feel unsafe.
The bill was briefly held up on the House floor so it could be amended to apply only to firearms, leaving stun weapons untouched.
The House version of the bill applies to “Capitol Square and the surrounding area,” defined to include adjacent streets and sidewalks. The Senate version applies only to Capitol Square.
In both versions, anyone who violates the gun ban could have their weapon seized and face a misdemeanor charge.
State law defines stun weapons as “any device that emits a momentary or pulsed output, which is electrical, audible, optical or electromagnetic in nature and which is designed to temporarily incapacitate a person.”