Local governments have the authority to enact zoning ordinances to regulate the location of businesses that sell firearms, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring wrote Friday in an opinion spurred by a gun shop that opened in Roanoke County.
Herring issued the opinion in response to an inquiry from Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, regarding a gun shop in Salem that opened about a year ago across the road from Fort Lewis Elementary School in Roanoke County’s Glenvar community. Roanoke County School Board Chairman Don Butzer asked Rasoul to seek an opinion from Herring.
“I received phone calls from parents at Fort Lewis about the proximity of the gun shop that opened, and some of the kids were actually a bit frightened about it, too,” Butzer said. “They hear about guns and what guns can do, and they’re just little kids in an elementary school.”
Virginia is one of many states that has a “pre-emption” law prohibiting local governments from enacting gun regulations that are stricter than those passed by state legislatures. Virginia’s law prohibits localities from adopting ordinances that restrict the purchase, possession, transfer, ownership, carrying, storage or transportation of firearms. However, Herring said that law does not pertain to the location of firearm sales facilities, nor does it state an intent to prevent localities from adopting local zoning ordinances to regulate the location of these businesses.
Rasoul told Herring that patrons of West Salem Tactical on West Main Street have direct line of sight to the Fort Lewis school playground and various classrooms.
Virginia law states it’s illegal to knowingly possess a firearm on school property. Those in violation could be convicted of a Class 1 misdemeanor and serve up to a year in jail or a $2,500 fine.
Butzer said businesses that sell pornography or smoke shops can be subject to local zoning ordinances that can restrict them from being too close to schools.
“So, parents wondered, why not gun shops?” Butzer said.
Butzer asked Rasoul to make the request nearly a year ago, before a May shooting in Virginia Beach that left 12 people dead prompted Gov. Ralph Northam to insist that the legislature deal with gun violence.
State legislators — mainly Democrats — have been pushing for years for the Republican-controlled General Assembly to allow localities to have more control over regulating firearms.
Butzer said the Salem gun shop has not done anything wrong and it wasn’t his intent to harm the business. But he said he wanted Herring’s opinion to handle similar scenarios in the future.
Herring notes that whether a particular ordinance is permissible, reasonable and constitutional are questions to be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Local officials have raised public safety concerns about the location of gun shops before. Roanoke’s past police chief expressed concern over Safeside Tactical opening a large gun range and retail store in a high-crime area of the city in 2015. Then-chief Chris Perkins — who is now chief of security for Roanoke City Public Schools — publicly worried about more guns flowing into the city that has a gun violence problem, as well as possible break-ins at the business. Safeside Tactical has a 72,000-square-foot building on Shenandoah Avenue Northwest.
“We don’t need gun transactions taking place near schools, daycares, homes, or other sensitive places,” Herring said in a statement about his opinion. “I hope this opinion will clarify communities’ power to keep gun shops from setting up in places they shouldn’t be.”