GOOCHLAND, Va. (CN) — Finding a new Virginia law limiting the purchase of handguns to one a month does not violate the Constitution, a rural judge on Thursday denied an injunction that would block it from taking effect. It’s one of two challenges to a wave of new gun laws passed by the state’s newly elected Democrat majority earlier this year.
“The government has a substantial interest in limiting gun trafficking,” said Goochland County Judge Timothy Sanner from the bench, just under a week before the law goes live. Sanner pointed to the state’s history as a depot for guns used in crime as among the reasons for his decision.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring praised the outcome from the steps of the courthouse. “These laws are legal, constitutional and they’re important,” he said. “We have seen too much gun violence in communities across the state and the problem of gun trafficking is real.
“The status quo is not acceptable and they want the Legislature to take bold action to keep our communities safer,” he added.
Representing local gun enthusiast Valerie Trojan in the lawsuit against Colonel Gary Settle, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, attorney David Browne said during oral arguments that the handgun-purchase limit violated both the U.S. and Virginia Constitution under the right to bear arms. Browne further suggested the limit was an arbitrary numerical limit and equated it with limiting the purchase of a Bible to once a month.
“It’s the right to bear arms: plural,” said Browne, who works for the firm Spiro and Browne in Richmond.
But Toby Heytens, the state solicitor general, argued the law, which allows additional purchases under certain conditions, amounted more to an enhanced background check. He also noted the lack of court intervention in similar laws, saying “no other court in the country” had considered ruling on such purchase limits.
And the nature of the purchase makes a difference as well, he argued. Heytens said it was not a prohibition limiting access to firearms, but rather a “modest restriction on commercial sales of firearms.”
State gun groups that joined Trojan's suit included the Virginia Citizens Defense League. Once a fringe group based in the state’s rural west, VCDL has grown in popularity as the National Rifle Association has fallen on hard times.
The group, fronted by activist Philip Van Cleave, brought several thousand gun activists to the state’s capital during the 2020 legislative sessions to oppose the new gun limit as well as other gun restrictions that were eventually passed.
Notably, both parties in Thursday’s dispute have acknowledged that this isn’t the first time Virginia limited handgun purchases to once a month through the Legislature. A similar limit was put in place in the early '90s and remained until former Governor Bob McDonnell repealed it in 2012.
The gun-control advocacy group The Virginia Center for Public Safety said the law helped limit out-of-state buyers from snatching up guns in Virginia and bringing them to other states, “impeding the volume of handguns that traffickers can resell illegally on the secondary market.”
Van Cleave, who promised to continue the case despite today’s loss, questioned the accuracy of the state’s link to crime guns. He also stressed the loss was due to the high threshold needed for an injunction and the same result wouldn’t play out as the case continues.
“This doesn’t mean we don’t have merit [in our argument],” he said in an interview following the hearing.
Van Cleave is also involved in a second lawsuit that aims to block a new universal background-check law. Filed in the similarly rural Lynchburg County Circuit Court, the challenge is still awaiting a hearing date.
A call to the courthouse Wednesday suggested the case might not get heard before the law goes into effect next week, but a judge has since been assigned: Judge Patrick Yeatts.
Van Cleave and friends already know Yeatts to be an ally; the judge granted an injunction blocking Governor Ralph Northam’s executive order that closed gun ranges during the early days of the outbreak of Covid-19.
Herring dismissed that ruling as specific to executive orders, and Northam has since allowed gun ranges to reopen as the state continues to see virus cases drop off.
“All unconstitutional laws were passed at one time by a Legislature,” Van Cleave said, looking optimistically toward the background-check fight. “It happens all the time.”
No matter the outcome of the background check dispute, evidence on the impact of such laws is up for debate. The RAND Center for Gun Policy said earlier this year that there were some statistical drops associated with mandated background checks, however the data was inconclusive as of April 2020.
“The cumulative evidence is puzzling, as overall effects of background checks appear to be uncertain, but some components of background checks appear to significantly reduce homicides or violent crime,” Andrew Morral, senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, leader of Gun Policy in America, wrote in the report.
While the first challenge fell and the second is yet to be decided, there’s still plenty of new gun laws on tap for the state once known for its freewheeling attitude toward firearms. They include a red-flag law as well as stiffer penalties for failing to report stolen guns or allowing guns to get into the hands of children. Localities will also be able to limit the carrying of guns on city-owned land.
“No matter where the law is challenged, if it's challenged or how many there are, this is important to Virginians,” Herring said of the new measures. “I’m going to continue to defend them in court and we’re going to win.”
As of press time, no other suits challenging the remaining laws, all set to go into effect next week, were filed in the state.
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