In less than a month, Virginia lawmakers will convene a special session to consider gun control measures. It was called by Gov. Ralph Northam shortly after the May 31 massacre at a municipal building in Virginia Beach.
There, a gunman wielding a silencer-equipped pistol with an extended magazine killed 12 people and wounded five others before he was fatally shot in a standoff with police.
For a variety of reasons, the summer session might be the best chance in a long while for Virginia General Assembly to enact gun control legislation. Let us consider the current political landscape.
First, all 140 senators and delegates are up for election in November. And Election Day — Nov. 5 — is less than four months after the special session’s launch. That means the outcome of the session will be fresher than normal in the minds of the voting public.
Second, Republican lawmakers are the ones who’ve ruthlessly dispatched most gun-control efforts in recent years. Up for election in November are at least three Republican-held Senate seats from the Tidewater area and five GOP House seats. Come the election, public sentiment owing to the massacre still might be quite raw among voters in those districts.
Third, control of each chamber in the General Assembly is at stake. The GOP currently holds that, but only barely. In the Senate, where there’s one vacant seat most recently held by a Republican, the GOP’s margin is 20 to 19. In the House, which has one vacant seat most recently held by a Democrat, the Republican majority is 51-48.
“People are outraged at what happened in Virginia Beach,” Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, told me Wednesday. “Virginians are demanding some action, because of what happened down there.”
Edwards has long held a reputation as a strong, gun-rights supporting Democrat. As recently as 2015, according to Project Vote Smart, Edwards had favorable rating of 93 percent with the National Rifle Association and 75 percent with the Virginia Citizens Defense League (the latter rating fell to 9 percent last year based on Edwards’ voting record in 2018).
Perhaps that’s why defense league President Philip Van Cleave told me, “We’re certainly taking [the special session] very seriously — even though he also called it “nothing but political theater for [Northam], who’s trying to deflect from the blackface scandal.”
Besides potential restrictions on silencers and high-capacity magazines, one area gun control-minded lawmakers may target is a law Van Cleave called “a real jewel” of the Virginia gun-rights movement. It’s a 2004 statute engineered by gun-rights supporters that prohibits localities from banning the general public from taking firearms into local government buildings.
Known among both gun-rights supporters and opponents as “local pre-emption” in essence, the law means that carrying guns into most local government buildings (save courthouses and jails) is expressly legal.
Here’s what the law says:
“No locality shall adopt or enforce any ordinance, resolution or motion, as permitted by [Section] 15.2-1425, and no agent of such locality shall take any administrative action, governing the purchase, possession, transfer, ownership, carrying, storage or transporting of firearms, ammunition, or components or combination thereof other than those expressly authorized by statute. For purposes of this section, a statute that does not refer to firearms, ammunition, or components or combination thereof, shall not be construed to provide express authorization.” (There are limited exceptions, such as local courthouses and jails.)
Among other things, for example, that law means that the Roanoke City Council, if it so desired, could ban knives, straight-razors or throwing stars in City Hall but not guns. And that’s not where the weirdness ends.
Remember the Ted Nugent concert last summer in the Berglund Center, a city-owned building? The 2004 law meant the City Council could not enact an ordinance prohibiting guns in that concert, or administratively ban firearms from it.
Oddly, Nugent was allowed to ban guns during the show, which he did. That was permitted by a 2010 opinion by then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, which stated: “A private entity leasing government property for an event generally may regulate or prohibit the carrying or possession of firearms on that property for such event . . . It is well established that private actors may do certain things on government property that the government itself may not do.”
In 2009, the General Assembly upped the ante just a bit on behalf of the gun-rights movement. Lawmakers enacting a measure allowing gun rights supporters to collect attorney’s fees from local governments they sued for infringing on the 2004 law, if the gun rights supporters won their lawsuits.
Edwards noted those are hardly the only oddities with regard to state law and guns in public buildings in Virginia.
An executive order issued by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe banning firearms from state buildings under the governor’s control remains in effect, Edwards said. Meanwhile, most people are prohibited from taking firearms into local courthouses and jails.
And that leaves us with a real hodgepodge with respect to guns in government buildings.
The public is banned from carrying guns in state agency buildings but not in the state capitol, which is controlled by the General Assembly. And firearms are banned in local courthouses and jails, but not in municipal buildings or in municipally owned arenas or concert halls.
Roanoke City Council cannot even ban guns during its meetings — Edwards tried but failed to win passage of that law in the past three legislative sessions. But NRA board member Ted Nugent can ban guns during his concert in a city-owned building.
Does anything seem wrong with that picture?