Virginians Divided on New Gun-Control Measures

A collection of firearms on display at the Colonial Shooting Academy in Richmond, Va. (Courthouse News photo/Brad Kutner)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Months after Virginia lawmakers passed a handful of new gun-control laws, many are finally being enforced and their enactment has generated a mix of reactions from people across the state. 

“Guns and large gatherings don’t mix,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in a tweet Tuesday night, shortly after the City Council passed an ordinance banning firearms from city buildings as well as events in public spaces. 

“This ordinance will make our city safer,” he added. 

Richmond’s law, passed unanimously, is nearly identical to a gun ban at events and city buildings passed in Charlottesville the same evening. The power to enact such limits locally came from changes approved earlier this year by the Virginia House, Senate and governor’s office, which are now all controlled by Democrats for the first time in more than two decades. 

Both cities are also united by events that have brought firearms and their owners into their streets with deadly or intimidating results. 

While Charlottesville’s 2017 Unite the Right Rally left one woman dead after a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, similar hate-driven events have disrupted the city for years. Meanwhile, Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun group that has since overtaken the NRA as the state’s largest gun rights group, brings thousands of its members to the capitol in Richmond annually, many armed to the teeth, to support pro-gun policies. 

VCDL’s rally in January saw three people arrested for an alleged link to “credible threats of violence” at the event, while at least one elected official went into hiding during the protest after numerous online threats were made against his life. 

But VCDL President Phillip Van Cleave pushed back on the idea that these new bans would make either city safer. 

“These restrictions are going to harm lawful gun owners,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s not going to lower crime but it’s going to put restrictions on me, someone who’s never committed a crime in my life.”

Van Cleave’s concerns have ironically been echoed by activists and observers who often counterprotest his events. 

Kristopher “Goad” Gatsby, who has used his online presence to observe both the Unite the Right rally as well as VCDL’s lobby day, said the gun bans could endanger the lives of Black Lives Matter protesters who have taken to the streets in the last five months. 

“If a violent fascist group shows up, being able to have firearms at an agreed upon location would deter those groups from showing up,” he said. 

He also expressed concern about how police will enforce the law. He and other BLM activists have accused local police of excessive force during recent events and this distrust of cops, along with concerns for those who come to Richmond heavily armed, have put the activist in a tough spot. 

“I hate giving Van Cleave his dues but there are lawful protesters who are engaged in protesting… and there are people who want to come at them,” Gatsby said. “They should be able to have firearms to prevent that.”

Virginia Capitol Police spokesman Joseph Macenka said while his agency has helped with crowd control and law enforcement during past events like VCDL’s rally, he’s not sure how they will help enforce the new city law. 

A man walks in the crowd during a pro-gun rally in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

“Since it was just passed this week, I am not aware that there have been any meetings yet to discuss its implications and enforcement,” he said in an email.

Richmond police did not return a request for comment.

Back in Charlottesville, Commonwealth’s Attorney Joseph Platania said he hopes education and working with those who bring firearms to the city will help his office avoid having to prosecute for violations.

“However,” he added, “this office will not hesitate to recommend to law enforcement that those willfully violating the ordinance be charged criminally.”

Van Cleave said he isn’t worried about violating the new law but still plans to demonstrate with firearms in the city in the future. 

“If 1,000 people go walking around downtown with guns, that’s not an event, that’s just people walking around downtown,” he said. 

While Richmond and Charlottesville have taken advantage of new state laws, many other Virginia cities have gone the other way and declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries. 

Virginia Beach is on that list despite the new law allowing municipalities to ban guns in their city-owned buildings being born out of a May 2019 mass shooting at one of the coastal city’s offices. 

“Why did we form a government? To provide services? Or was the Constitution created to preserve our God-given liberties?” Virginia Beach Councilman John Moss asked during a tense January meeting that ended with a vote promising to never enact such a ban.  

Van Cleave said lack of widespread gun bans in Virginia is due to locals believing “gun-free zones aren’t necessarily the answer.” 

The pro-gun activist has taken his concerns over several of the new laws to court with mixed results. 

An attempt to block a new purchase limit of one handgun a month was rejected by a Goochland County judge in June. Data from the Virginia Firearms Transaction Center showed a recent spike in gun purchase denials, but local reporting attributed it to confusion over when the 30-day limit starts. 

Another suit brought by Van Cleave aimed to halt the state’s expansion of background checks. Virginia’s so-called gun show loophole, which allowed sales between private individuals without such a search, has been linked to out-of-state guns used in crimes for years and helped spur the creation of the law. A judge in rural Lynchburg Circuit Court mostly upheld the background check law, though not for those under the age of 21.

Numbers from the state show 20,000 more background checks last month compared to the year before – 38,256 checks in August 2019 versus 58,902 in August 2020.

In a phone interview, Delegate Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, said the increase in background checks show the law is working.

“We’ve had a huge loophole here in Virginia for way too long and we’re finally able to make sure people who shouldn’t be buying guns aren’t,” he said.

A representative for Virginia State Police was unable to comment on why the rise in background checks was so dramatic, but Van Cleave thinks it reflects a spike in gun purchases in response to new restrictions.  

“We’ve had riots, other social unrest and gun control coming down everywhere,” he said, claiming the private sales the background check law targeted made up a small portion of the state’s total sales to begin with. “Gun ownership is soaring. People are buying guns left and right.” 

Mullin pushed back on Van Cleave’s assessment. A former prosecutor, the delegate said he’s carried a gun for years and welcomes Virginians buying more guns under the new law.

“The fact that more people want to be able to exercise their Second Amendment right is perfectly acceptable,” he added. “But we want to make sure the unlawful people don’t get a firearm.”

Another new measure passed by state lawmakers this year was a red-flag law that allows for a civil process to remove guns from citizens based on complaints of harm against others or themselves. Virginia State Police said there has been a total of 18 uses of the new law since it went into effect across the state, but most recently the Winchester Star reported a man in Frederick County had his weapons taken by the local sheriff’s office earlier this month. 

Court filings show family members reported the man “pointed a gun at his grandson… and told his family he had 30 – 60 days and by then no one would be left.”

Frederick County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Warren W. Gosnell said in an email that his agency was “careful to follow this code section only after certain actions on the part of the suspect were confirmed and that all details with the issued ESRO [emergency substantial risk order] were in order.”

“No family should have to fear for their lives from gun violence, let alone in their own home, after threats like these,” said Delegate Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, who authored the law, in a tweet about the Winchester Star story. “Red flag laws work.”

Governor Ralph Northam and fellow Democrats failed to pass additional gun laws earlier this year but those could return in future sessions. Van Cleave has promised to continue his fight to see them rolled back. 

But those to the left of the issue – like the group Moms Demand Action, whose membership helped get the Democratic majority elected last year – are happy to see the results so far. 

“Each ordinance keeping guns out of sensitive places is a win for public safety,” said Jennifer Herrera, a volunteer with the Virginia chapter of Moms Demand Action, in an email following the passage of the Richmond and Charlottesville ordinances on Tuesday. “Now, more Virginia communities are actively fighting gun violence than ever before.”

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