Virginia gun rally: Whats behind the battle over gun control descending on Richmond
Thousands of gun owners, many of them armed and some members of out-of-state militias and hate groups, plan to descend on Richmond on Monday amid a fierce battle over Virginia’s gun laws.
Gov. Ralph Northam and Democrats in the state General Assembly have promised to pass a host of gun control measures, sparking far-reaching outcry and threats of violence.
Northam declared a state of emergency in Richmond through Tuesday evening after he says law enforcement received credible threats of extremist groups with “malicious plans.”
Fearing violence similar to that of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, Northam banned all weapons, including firearms near the state capitol under the emergency order, which Supreme Court of Virginia upheld after legal challenge.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League, the group who organized the rally and challenged Northam’s ban, has painted Democrats’ gun proposals as “draconian” and urged for a mass, grassroots movement to fight back against “tyranny.”
“The governor and leadership in the Democratic Party have declared war on law-abiding gun owners, and they’re tired of it,” Virginia Citizens Defense League president Philip Van Cleave told USA TODAY last week.
President Donald Trump also weighed in on Friday, tweeting: “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Here’s what you need to know about the rally and Virginia gun laws:
Will people be allowed to carry guns in Richmond on Monday?
Virginia law permits some firearms to be openly carried in some places. Locations, including federal buildings, schools, courthouses and places of worship, have some restrictions on open carry.
In Richmond, firearms that are openly carried without having a concealed carry permit must meet certain restrictions, including the type of firearm, number of rounds the it can hold and some attachments.
Northam’s emergency declaration, however, bans all weapons around the state Capitol grounds through Tuesday, and a special rules committee in the General Assembly banned guns inside the Capitol and a legislative office building.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League and Gun Owners of America sought an injunction against the ban, but a lower court determined that the governor has the authority to enact such a ban and that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment right to bear arms is not unlimited.
What gun control measures are Northam, Democrats proposing?
Driving the momentum behind the Virginia Citizens Defense League rally is a package of gun control measures that Northam and Democrats campaigned on and promised to pass after flipping the state legislature in November.
Three bills passed the state Senate on Thursday: A limit to one handgun purchase per month, a requirement for universal background checks on gun sales and a rule allowing localities to ban guns in some public areas.
A proposal for a “red flag” law, which would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from anyone deemed dangerous to themselves or others, is also being considered.
Other proposals Democrats and Northam have backed include rules about reporting lost or stolen firearms, increased penalties for recklessly leaving loaded, unsecured firearms near children, a ban on anyone subject to a final protective order from possessing firearms, and a ban on “assault firearms” – though some moderate Democrats expressed concerns over that bill.
Republicans in the General Assembly blocked a package of gun control bills last July after Northam introduced a special legislative session in the weeks that followed a mass shooting in Virginia beach.
The shooting left 12 people dead and sparked debate around the state’s gun laws, but Republicans adjourned the special session, rejecting all the proposals without a vote. Northam has said the proposals are intended to keep Virginians safer.
How have gun owners responded and what are Second Amendment ‘sanctuaries’?
Since November, more than 100 counties, cities and towns in Virginia have declared themselves “sanctuaries” for the Second Amendment.
Supporters of the resolutions, including some local law enforcement, say they do not enforcement of unconstitutional laws they believe infringe on their right to bear arms under the Second Amendment and Virginia Constitution.
“It’s taking a stand to protect your constitutional rights and sending a message to Richmond that we will not stand by and do nothing,” said Pam Carter, a local official in Augusta County, where the board of supervisors approved a resolution to become a Second Amendment sanctuary in December.
In some localities, more than a thousand people have attended local government meetings donning orange stickers that say “Guns Save Lives” as they consider the “sanctuary” resolutions.
Legal experts and Herring say the resolutions hold no legal force as local law cannot supersede state law.
“They’re just part of an effort by the gun lobby to stoke fear,” Herring said in a statement.
Since the General Assembly session began earlier this month, many of the hearings on the gun proposals have drawn gun-rights proponents, largely organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, as well as proponents of gun control.
So are the Democrats’ proposals constitutional?
While the laws could be challenged in Virginia’s courts, similar proposals in other states have not been struck down as violating the Second Amendment, says Ernest McGowen, a political science professor at the University of Richmond.
He said what Northam and Democrats have proposed is a shift left in Virginia but not radically.
Gary Kleck, a criminology professor at Florida State University, said it would be unlikely for a court to rule similar laws unconstitutional for infringing on Second Amendment rights. Some laws, like a “red flag” law, could be challenged on the grounds that they violate due process rights, but that would depend on the specifics of how they are implemented, he said. Appeals courts in some state have upheld “red flag” laws.
Contributing: Claire Mitzel, Staunton News Leader, in Stuarts Draft, Virginia