The Bulletin

In official opinion, Virginia AG says gun sanctuary resolutions have ‘no legal effect’

By: - December 20, 2019 11:42 am
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Attorney General Mark Herring says the Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions being passed by Virginia localities have “no legal effect,” according to an official opinion issued Friday.

Even if the resolutions were written to explicitly defy the new gun-control laws expected to be passed next year under a Democratic-controlled General Assembly, Herring said localities have no such power.

“It is my further opinion that localities and and local constitutional officers cannot nullify state laws and must comply with gun violence prevention measures that the General Assembly may enact,” Herring wrote in the four-page opinion.

Since Democrats won legislative majorities in November’s elections, more than Virginia 100 counties, cities and towns have preemptively passed resolutions expressing their support for gun rights and, to varying degrees, their opposition to new gun-control measures. Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, sought the opinion from Herring’s office in response to the phenomenon.

“When the General Assembly passes new gun safety laws they will be enforced, and they will be followed. These resolutions have no legal force, and they’re just part of an effort by the gun lobby to stoke fear,” Herring said in a news release accompanying the opinion.

In response, soon-to-be House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, suggested the opinion was at odds with Herring’s prior refusal to defend Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban before it was officially struck down because he felt it was unconstitutional.

“This not only conflicts with his previous statement about his own conduct, but also the position of a number of Democratic commonwealth’s attorneys regarding prosecution of marijuana possession,” Gilbert said in a release. “I look forward to the attorney general following up with the commonwealth’s attorneys and commonwealth’s attorneys-elect in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Portsmouth and Norfolk about the supremacy of state law over the policy preferences of local elected officials.”

Whether the measures prove symbolic or not, right-wing websites exploded with headlines last week floating the possibility that Gov. Ralph Northam would send the state’s National Guard to enforce whatever gun laws the General Assembly approves. Rep. Don McEachin, D-Richmond, prompted the speculation when he told the Washington Examiner, “I’m not the governor, but the governor may have to nationalize the National Guard to enforce the law.”

The outcry that followed prompted the Guard’s leader, Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, to direct a message to personnel saying he had not received any such request.

“We will not speculate about the possible use of the Virginia National Guard,” he said. “I encourage everyone to be patient while we allow our elected officials to work through the legislative process.”

Northam’s administration, however, has said unequivocally that a military deployment is not something it’s considering.

“The governor has no intention of using the National Guard,” said Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran. “Our position is that these laws are constitutional.

They are common sense reasonable approaches to reduce gun violence in Virginia. And once they have passed, we’re going to work with all of our stakeholders — sheriffs and county administrators and police — to properly and effectively implement them come July 1.”

Mercury reporter Ned Oliver contributed to this story.

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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. Contact him at [email protected]