Following Governor Ralph Northam’s 2019 promise to advance gun control laws in Virginia, newly elected state representatives have introduced a slew of bills aimed at restricting gun sales and ownership, including one in particular that has ignited a firestorm of opposition from citizens across the state. SB 16, introduced by Senator Richard Saslaw in November, would ban the purchase, sale, or possession of commonly owned semi-automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns, under penalty of a Class 6 felony conviction punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment.
Governor Northam said that gun safety bills will “save lives and improve public safety in our communities,” speaking at a Cabinet meeting after Democrats gained a majority in both the Senate and House of Delegates in the November elections. “It’s going to be a new day,” he said. Other proposed legislation includes expanded background checks on firearms sales, restrictions on handgun purchases within a 30-day period, and “red flag” laws allowing police and the courts to temporarily disarm a person exhibiting dangerous behavior.
SB 16, which will be sent to Senate committees when the next session convenes in January, expands the definition of prohibited “assault firearms.” (See the bill’s language nearby.) An assault firearm is not a specific type of weapon, but instead has been defined by legislators as one that possesses certain physical features, such as a folding or telescoping stock, pistol grip, thumbhole stock, flash suppressor, or magazine capacity greater than ten rounds.
These features are often targeted for bans because they allow the user to shoot more accurately, comfortably, and for longer periods without reloading, which are the same reasons they are favored by hunters, competitive marksmen, and home defenders. None of the potentially banned features change the one-shot-per-trigger-pull action of semi-automatic weapons. (The sale or transfer of fully automatic assault rifles, commonly understood as machine guns, has been illegal in the U.S. since 1986.)
Senator Saslaw’s filing touched off a vehement reaction from gun rights advocates, who believe the proposed restrictions to be unconstitutional at both the state and federal levels. The Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), a non-profit group that advocates for pro-gun legislation at the state level, immediately organized a process for individual counties, towns, and cities to assert “Second Amendment sanctuary” status by asking their local councils or boards to pass a resolution.
The resolution’s language expresses “opposition to any law that would unconstitutionally restrict the rights of citizens to keep and bear arms,” thus providing figurative “sanctuary” from the new law’s enforcement. It is a statement of opposition—a symbolic message of disapproval and resistance from local elected bodies—but does not carry legal authority.
Nonetheless, over the last two months Virginia’s “2A sanctuary” movement has exploded. Citizens have bombarded their local city and county board meetings with calls for officials to adopt the resolution language, filling venues to overflow and speaking passionately about gun ownership. Louisa County’s December meeting attracted 600 people, 1,500 attended in Virginia Beach, and Rockingham County saw more than 2,000 citizens fill a high school gym to bursting.
Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions have passed in 114 counties and cities to date (as depicted in the nearby map), and the VCDL still hopes to persuade a dozen or so more localities to follow suit. Every county that borders Albemarle has passed a resolution, but Albemarle has thus far resisted citizen pressure. A relatively modest 150 residents attended the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors’ (BOS) December 4 meeting, where a dozen people spoke during the public comment period for about an hour, though the issue was not on the Board’s agenda.
After outbursts of cheering early on were tamped down by BOS Chair Ned Gallaway, the commenters and audience remained polite and respectful. (Please also see coverage of Nelson County’s meeting in a separate dispatch by Mary Cunningham.) Speakers referenced the Founding Fathers’ intentions, the 1803 U.S. Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison, the text of the Second Amendment, and their own personal experience in defense of their right to own and use firearms.
“Consider what’s going to happen to all of us who become felons [as a result of owning firearms banned by the proposed law],” said David Weber, the evening’s first speaker. “I served my country, first in the Navy and then as a local law enforcement officer, for 51 years, and I tell you I will not go quietly into the night and let that happen.”
“If somebody breaks down the door of my house, I have the right to defend myself and my family, God forbid with deadly force if necessary,” said Gregory Quinn. “There is no condition under which the government of Virginia can infringe on my Second Amendment rights. If they do that, it is illegal.” Another speaker quoted Frederick Douglass, former slave and abolitionist writer and orator, who prescribed “a good revolver and a steady hand” in opposing the forces of tyranny and oppression.
WCHV talk radio host Joe Thomas observed that “[t]his bill will end up in court, because that’s what happens. Its constitutionality will be challenged.” He spoke of the equalizing effects of owning a gun—“the ability of someone 5’4” and 100 pounds to be able to defend themselves against somebody 6’2” and 200 pounds.”
Thomas also noted that the Second Amendment cannot be taken in isolation from other amendments. “The Second Amendment defends the First,” he said, “and the Fourth, the Fifth. People in Hong Kong are being shot at by their government right now in defense of the Sixth. I would love to think that Albemarle County would be a defender of all of the Bill of Rights, not just one of them but all of them.”
Charlottesville activist Matthew Christensen warned the board against passing a 2A sanctuary resolution in strong, personal terms. “I cannot wait to sue every single councilor and supervisor in the state of Virginia when they decide not to uphold the law,” he said, glaring at the supervisors. “You have to think, do you want to be held personally liable for every gunshot fired after [this resolution] is passed? If gun control laws aren’t passed, I’m going to be there on the front lines helping to arm every marginalized individual to defend themselves, often probably from many of the people in this room.”
The intensity of the 2A sanctuary movement has already provoked a recalibration of the proposed legislation: an exemption for current gun owners paired with a registration requirement. “In this case, the governor’s assault weapons ban will include a grandfather clause for individuals who already own assault weapons, with the requirement that they register their weapons before the end of a designated grace period,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky in a December 9 statement.
In response to the grandfather clause news, the VCDL said in an email to supporters that it will continue to oppose the law to protect future generations of gun owners, and that it rejects mandatory gun registration as a prelude to confiscation. While some Virginia state officials have denied the law would lead to gun seizures, District 4 representative Donald McEachin suggested that “the Governor may have to nationalize the National Guard to enforce the law.”
The rhetoric continues to elevate on both sides. At the local level, sheriffs in counties such as Lee, Smyth, and Rappahannock have expressed strong support for the 2A sanctuary resolutions. Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins said in a December 4 Facebook post that he planned “to properly screen and deputize thousands of our law-abiding citizens to protect their constitutional right to own firearms,” should the Virginia legislature pass the currently proposed laws.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring was quoted by Richmond’s WRIC news as dismissive of the 2A sanctuary movement. “It’s really the gun lobby trying to scare a lot of people,” said Herring. “When the General Assembly passes it in the upcoming session, those laws are going to be enforced and they will be followed.”
The VCDL is planning a large-scale “Lobby Day” on January 20 at the Richmond General Assembly building to protest proposed gun legislation and promote gun rights.
Board Member Views
Though none of the Albemarle county supervisors addressed the issue during the December 4 meeting, most indicated after the meeting that they would not take up the resolution debate under current circumstances.
“I have received many emails both ‘pro’ and ‘con’ on this subject,” said Liz Palmer, BOS representative for the Samuel Miller district. “The passion and concern expressed by those who attended the BOS meeting on Dec 4 was clear, and I learned a lot. Many believe they will not be able to own a gun because of recent changes in the General Assembly. However, there are many pro-gun Democrats, and sweeping gun law changes have little chance of passing in the General Assembly. If something dramatic is passed, it will take years to settle the lawsuits that would follow. Sensible changes to our gun laws should be on the table, for example, red flag laws and strengthening background checks.”
Regarding a sanctuary resolution, Palmer pointed activists to their state government. “I consider the declaration of a sanctuary county a political statement aimed at members of the General Assembly. I hope those concerned about gun rights have written their state representatives. And, I must add, I am against using county taxpayers’ money to challenge state or federal law.”
Ann Mallek, BOS White Hall representative, said the resolution fight is misdirected. “Albemarle County does not disobey state law, no matter how concerned local leaders are about it,” she said. “Local government spends considerable time each year bringing our ordinances into compliance with new legislation passed in the General Assembly, in order to be ready on the ‘take effect’ day. This issue is no different.”
Mallek lamented that “people in the audience had been told that the board would vote on the sanctuary if they showed up at the meeting, and those expecting a vote were disappointed,” and some called her later to complain. “The item has not been proposed for our agenda, and was not on our agenda. After I explained the truth of the matter, their frustration turned on those who had made them worried and upset with false information.”
Ultimately, Mallek advised residents to track the legislation as it evolves. “I propose citizens follow what is debated and adopted in the legislature, as local elected officials will be doing. Write to your representatives to share your views on any issue, but find out the details of the question first, in order for your comments to be on target and effective.”