RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – With two friendly state legislative chambers set to convene next week, Virginia’s Democratic attorney general reintroduced a handful of bills Friday aimed at stopping the rising tide of hate-fueled violence.
Mark Herring, who took office in 2014 and was reelected in 2017, said the package of legislation backed by Democrats will help “protect Virginians from hate crimes and white supremacist violence.”
“For years I have watched as the number of hate crimes in Virginia and around the country rise and turn deadly all too often,” he said in a lengthy statement Friday. “We have to send a message to the peddlers of hate that they are not welcome here and their hate and violence will not be tolerated in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Herring cited FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last July, in which he said that “a majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call ‘white supremacist violence.’”
The attorney general further pointed to a Virginia State Police report and 2018 FBI hate crime numbers that both show a dramatic expansion of bias-motivated crime.
“I will not let up until every Virginian can live without fear of violence and hate because of what they look like, how they worship, where they came from, or who they love,” Herring said.
Specifics of the bills, which had been previously blocked by a Republican-controlled Legislature, range from gun control to civil rights.
One bill would allow localities to ban guns in events that require permits and another would bar those found guilty of a hate crime from owning a firearm.
Democrats control both of the state’s legislative chambers and the governor’s office for the first time in decades and they’re armed with a progressive agenda, especially when it comes to gun control. Second Amendment advocates have increased their visibility by passing sanctuary bills in nearly 100 cities and counties, often rural and deeply conservative, aimed at exempting them from statewide gun restrictions.
But Herring shot down those efforts in an advisory opinion last month. He said the cities and counties are bound by the will of state lawmakers under the Dillon rule, a legal principle prohibiting local authorities from establishing powers not expressly granted by the Legislature.
Delegate Rip Sullivan, D- Fairfax, who sponsored the bill to bar hate crime convicts from owning guns, said his legislation will help make state law reflect the values of Virginians.
Gun control was front and center during the 2019 election cycle. A mass shooting in Virginia Beach last May left 12 dead and lead to Democratic Governor Ralph Northam calling a special summer legislative session to address the state’s notoriously loose gun laws. But Republicans shut down the session within 90 minutes without addressing any of Northam’s requests.
A traditionally Republican voter told Courthouse News that this inaction lead him to vote for a Democrat last November.
“The inaction was intolerable,” Ken Kerns of Richmond said as he left the voting booth.
Herring made note of this political shift on Friday, saying similar legislation he supported in previous sessions had been “bottled up in Republican-controlled committees for years.”
“But this year, with a new General Assembly, we will pass this critical legislation,” he said.
Herring also set his sights on activity seen at a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, in which one counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed.
He threw his support behind a bill sponsored by Senator Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, which would make it a class 5 felony for organizing military drills with the intent of intimidating “any person or group of persons.”
“This bill will further restrict the kind of paramilitary activity by white supremacist militias and similar groups that was seen in Charlottesville in August 2017,” Herring’s office said.
The attorney general also hopes to pass legislation allowing his office to prosecute hate crimes instead of federal prosecutors and making domestic terrorism a sentencing enhancement.
Another proposed law would expand the list of protected classes to include hate crimes committed on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
The lack of distinction in protected classes has already led to legal uncertainty in Virginia after an employee at an Amazon shipping facility was attacked because of his sexual orientation in 2015.
Local police sought to charge the attacker with a hate crime, but Virginia is one of many states that do not include sexual orientation as part of protected classes in their hate crime laws. The U.S. Justice Department took over the case and brought a federal hate crimes charge. The case is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Doron F. Ezickson, the Washington, D.C. regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, urged Virginia legislators to update the law.
“We are witnessing an increase in hate, violence, xenophobic rhetoric and bias-motivated actions targeting Jews, Muslims, immigrants, people of color and LGBTQ individuals,” he said in a statement. “One vital step to confront this trend is legislation that will broaden the protected categories under Virginia’s hate crime statute, ensuring our laws protect our diversity and acknowledge the fullness of the identities of those who call the Commonwealth home.”
Virginia’s 2020 legislative session starts Wednesday, Jan. 8.Follow @@BradKutner
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.