Virginia Gun Rights Groups Say Virus Restrictions Go Too Far

As firearm sales skyrocket during the coronavirus outbreak, Virginia businesses and gun rights advocates are challenging the closure of indoor shooting ranges.

A collection of firearms on display at the Colonial Shooting Academy in Richmond, Va., in July 2019. (CNS Photo/Brad Kutner)

(CN) — In one of the coronavirus pandemic’s ironic turns, half of the SafeSide Tactical business in Virginia is booming – the part that sells guns. But the indoor range where customers learn how to use those guns has been shuttered.   

Indoor shooting ranges were among the entertainment and recreational businesses closed during the Covid-19 outbreak by order of Democratic Governor Ralph Northam. Now, SafeSide, a firearms business in Lynchburg, is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last week in Lynchburg City Circuit Court claiming the governor’s order is an overreach and violates the state constitution.

“The big wake-up call is, why can you walk in this door and buy a gun, and you can’t walk 50 feet over to another part of the building and learn to use it,” said Mitchell Tyler, chief operating officer of Lynchburg Range and Training LLC, which does business as SafeSide Lynchburg. “From a safety standpoint, an educated gun owner is much less a concern than an uneducated gun owner. That’s why we built the ranges. That’s why we have training classes.”

SafeSide was joined in the lawsuit by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, Gun Owners of America and the Association of Virginia Gun Ranges.

Gun-control measures approved by state lawmakers earlier this year fueled increased sales at gun stores across Virginia. Then came the pandemic, and these days Tyler regularly gets new customers, like a retiree who’d never owned a gun until now. 

“He said, ‘I just don’t know if people get desperate, what’s to stop them from coming and kicking down my door?’” Tyler recalled. “Even folks who have never purchased a gun before start to think, what happens if the police don’t come?”

Sales at Tyler’s business last month increased 110% compared to March 2019. Throughout the state, the trend is much the same.

The Virginia Firearms Transaction Center conducted 80,228 background checks in March, according to a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police.  Last year, during the same month, the center conducted 45,826 checks.

Nationwide in March, the FBI processed 3.7 million gun background checks—more than any other single month since the system was started in 1998.  

Americans have heard the news and they are worried. Firefighters and health care workers have fallen ill. Cities have reported fewer arrests, as people stay at home and departments work to limit jail populations. And in New York City, nearly 20% of police officers were out sick last week.

Gun rights advocates hold signs prior to the start of a Virginia Senate committee meeting on Jan. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

But the uptick in firearms sales also raises concerns given Virginia’s troublesome history of gun violence: Thursday marks the 13th anniversary of the shooting massacre that left 32 people dead at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. Just last year, a gunman killed a dozen people at a municipal building in Virginia Beach.

Owning a gun doesn’t make anyone safer, says Lori Haas, Virginia state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.  

“They increase the risk of suicide. They increase the risk of assault and homicide. They increase the lethality in domestic violence situations,” she said.

Some outdoor ranges remain open in Virginia. Stephen L. Sulzer, an attorney who teaches beginners at an outdoor range in Fairfax County, said some basics can be taught online. But he stopped taking newcomers at his range because it was too difficult to help students master their grip and stance while maintaining social-distancing guidelines and standing 6 feet away.

Sulzer said he can help someone become safe with guns without going to the range – “but I can’t make you effective.”

Practice is important, said Amy Skelton, a single mom living near Lynchburg.

“The more research I do, a gun is the safest way to protect yourself,” she said, adding that she has taken classes. “I wanted to be a responsible gun owner.”

Skelton bought her gun before the pandemic and practiced at the SafeSide’s indoor range before it closed. She liked the fact that there was staff supervision and people who could advise her. Since it has been closed down, she still finds places to shoot. She lives in the country and set up a target in her yard.

The Lynchburg lawsuit names as defendants Governor Northam and Gary T. Settle, superintendent of Virginia State Police. It was filed on behalf of SafeSide and the gun rights groups by attorney David Browne of the Richmond firm Spiro & Browne.

The plaintiffs want a judge to find that the governor’s executive order violates the Virginia Constitution, along with an injunction barring state police from enforcing it.

“The text of EO 53 itself reveals a disrespect for the exercise of firearms-related

rights. It closes down indoor shooting ranges as mere ‘places of public amusement,’” the complaint states. “But although there is no enumerated right in the United States or Virginia constitutions to frequent a tanning salon, racetrack, or bowling alley, there is such a right recognized in both constitutions that protects shooting ranges. Moreover, EO 53 allows businesses to remain open that are favored by the governor, yet which expose Virginians to a much higher degree of social interaction than indoor shooting ranges.”

Attorneys for the state have asked that the case be moved to federal court.

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