As Virginia lawmakers prepare to consider gun-control measures in a special General Assembly session and top state officials rove the commonwealth for roundtable discussions about gun laws, at least one Southwest Virginia county has headed in the opposite direction.
That’s Carroll County, population 29,000, home of the Labor Day Flea Market and Gun Show, which bills itself as the largest such event east of the Mississippi.
In April, Carroll County supervisors adopted a resolution bemoaning “a slippery slope of restrictions on ... Second Amendment rights” in both Virginia and the United States. The resolution declared the county a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.”
Although Carroll County appears to be the first such gun-rights sanctuary in Virginia, it’s following similar moves in rural states and localities across the country. The movement seems to be a rural reaction to urban-area declarations of “sanctuary cities” that have barred the use of local money to aid enforcement of federal laws against illegal immigration.
Most gun-rights “sanctuaries” are in the Midwest or West. The states of Kansas, Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska are gun-rights “sanctuaries.” So are a majority of counties in Illinois, New Mexico and Washington, with Colorado not far behind.
Besides Carroll County, only a handful of localities east of the Mississippi — in North Carolina, Maryland, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Maine and New York — have declared themselves gun-rights sanctuaries.
Andy Parker, a gun-control advocate from Martinsville, called the resolution “the gun-nut version of ‘Let’s create a sanctuary city.’ ”
Carroll County officials acknowledge the 514-word resolution is mostly symbolic and would not prevent state and federal authorities from enforcing current or future firearms laws there.
Supervisor Robbie McCraw, who sponsored the resolution, said it could put the county’s locally elected — but state-financed — sheriff on the spot.
The resolution signifies supervisors’ “intent that public funds of the County not be used to restrict Second Amendment rights or to aid in the unnecessary and unconstitutional restriction of the rights under the Second Amendment of the citizens of Carroll County to bear arms.”
McCraw told me he borrowed the idea from “something I came across in literature I receive, on and off, from across the country.”
The specific resolution was modeled on an ordinance adopted in March by Cherokee County, North Carolina, he added.
“We won’t use any local funds or support to aid in the confiscation of guns or to take away our Second Amendment rights,” McCraw said. “If the state enacts something, and they want to enforce it, and they want to send law enforcement to obtain our weapons, they can do that, I guess.”
This month, Gov. Ralph Northam called for a special General Assembly session in July to consider gun-control measures. That followed the May 31 gun massacre in Virginia Beach in which a former city employee, armed with a silencer-equipped handgun and extended magazines, killed 12 people and wounded four in a municipal building. He died in a gun battle with police.
Silencers — the gun-rights movement prefers the term “suppressor” — and extended magazines are legal in Virginia. Current state law prevents localities from prohibiting citizens from bringing firearms into most local government buildings except for courthouses and jails. (But localities may bar employees from bringing guns into the workplace.)
“We are a very rural area,” McCraw told me. “Everybody has guns. Everybody hunts. ... I don’t know what [the Virginia legislature is] going for, but it could be detrimental.”
One piece of legislation that could emerge from the special session has been debated and shot down before in Richmond. It would require universal background checks on all firearms purchasers.
The proposal was intended to close the so-called “gun-show loophole” under which private sellers of firearms may legally transfer guns to another person without a criminal background check.
(Currently, Virginia law requires mandatory background checks only when licensed dealers sell firearms.)
Since 2016, state police have attended most gun shows in the commonwealth and offered background checks for private firearms transactions. But those are optional.
Mandatory background checks could have a significant effect on the Labor Day Flea Market and Gun Show in Hillsville (population 2,700). Annually, that brings 350,000 to 500,000 people to the Carroll County seat, said Sheriff John Gardner.
Gardner called it the “largest flea market on the East Coast,” but noted the event’s gun component has winnowed in recent years. Gardner called himself a supporter of the Second Amendment but added, “I have no position on the resolution [the board of supervisors] passed.”
“We’re going to continue enforcing the law,” Gardner said, adding that he would not discuss “presumed laws” because “I have no clue what they’re going to pass.”
“There’s not enough of us working” the flea market to enforce universal background checks on private-seller gun transactions, Gardner added. “If we have 10 people working the flea market, that’s a good day.”
McCraw said he ran the resolution by Gardner before it came up for a vote in April because “I know it could put the sheriff in a position. He’s going to have to do what he feels is right. He was on board with it.”
One person who’s not on board at all is Parker, the Martinsville resident. His daughter, Alison Parker, a WDBJ-7 reporter and anchor, and cameraman Adam Ward were gunned down during an interview at Smith Mountain Lake in August 2015.
Since then, Parker has worked tirelessly on Virginia gun-control efforts. This year, he published a book about what happened to his daughter, “For Alison: The Murder of a Young Journalist and a Father’s Fight for Gun Safety.”
Parker called the “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolution “an absurd idea” rooted in “pure ignorance.”
“You ask these people, ‘So, who’s taking your guns away?’” Parker said. “The answer is ‘Nobody.’ They are so paranoid.”
“If universal background checks are passed, and the gun-show loopholes are closed, I’m sure they’re concerned guns won’t be able to be sold, no questions asked. If that’s their motivation, it’s heinous.”