Gun control has been a highly debated and partisan issue across the United States since the Columbine High School massacre of 1999.  In 2007, Virginia experienced its own mass shooting, one of the deadliest in American history, when 33 were shot and killed on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg on April 16, 2007.  The debate on gun control continued to grow in Virginia this year following the mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building on May 31st, 2019, which killed thirteen.

Candidates for the 2019 general assembly were quick to make their positions clear on gun control following the shooting, with many democratic candidates promising to enact gun control legislation should they be elected, while republican candidates vowed to protect the second amendment rights of Virginians.  Since the democratic take over following the elections on November 5th, majority conservative counties have begun to declare themselves as gun sanctuaries in defiance of the gun control promises of the newly elected democratic general assembly. As the new year and the beginning of a new general assembly session grows closer, gun control will surely continue to be a strongly contested matter between the will of the people and their newly elected representatives.

OnAir Post: Virginia and Guns


Virginia gun group pressing on with Jan. 18 event, despite violence in D.C.
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw and Ned OliverJanuary 12, 2021
A banner and pro-gun rally attendees line up near Grace and Ninth streets in Downtown Richmond near the Capitol. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

The leader of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League said the group isn’t changing its plans for a Jan. 18 rally in Richmond after right-wing rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to protest the presidential election.

A year ago, more than 20,000 gun enthusiasts packed the streets around the Virginia Capitol for VCDL’s annual Lobby Day event, a larger-than-normal crowd inspired largely by pro-gun control Democrats winning control of the General Assembly.

Though there were warnings last year’s event could turn violent, there was none of the mayhem seen last week in D.C., where supporters of President Donald Trump attacked police and broke into the Capitol chambers. One U.S. Capitol Police officer died as a result of injuries from the melee, police said, and a Trump supporter was fatally shot by police as she tried to enter a secure area of the building.

A recent FBI memo warned of possible armed protests in all 50 capitals ahead of President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, according to the Associated Press.

It’s not clear what to expect on Jan. 18 event, but it appears to be the only major event on Virginia law enforcement’s radar.

After being denied a permit to rally on the Virginia Capitol grounds, VCDL has asked supporters to participate in a vehicle caravan in the area. The General Assembly won’t be meeting at the Capitol due to COVID-19 precautions.

In online discussions about the VCDL event, some of the group’s supporters questioned whether it was still wise to proceed in the aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, urging organizers to cancel. They worried the planned format would resemble the “Trump Trains” organized by the president’s most fervent supporters. But other members wrote that cancelling could be perceived as giving in to pro-gun control groups.

Phil Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, speaks to a rally in January 2020 of thousands of gun control opponents on the Capitol grounds. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

In an interview, VCDL President Philip Van Cleave seemed firmly in the latter camp.

“What happened in D.C. had nothing whatseover to do with us,” Van Cleave said, adding there have been “unfortunate” acts of political violence “happening around the country.”

He noted Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency ahead of last year’s event and “nothing happened.”

“I can’t guarantee nothing would happen again if somebody’s determined to cause a problem,” Van Cleave said. “But we can’t stop every time there’s a potential threat. They’ll just keep doing it and we won’t be able to ever have an event again of any sort.”

Van Cleave stressed that VCDL cares about one issue, guns, and he wants rallygoers to stick to that message and be peaceful.

“We’ve got police there,” he said. “Their job is to be on the lookout for trouble. And if there’s trouble, their job is to handle it. That’s what we pay them for.”

Hundreds of police officers were on hand for a massive pro-gun rally that drew thousands to the Capitol and surrounding streets last year. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia General Assembly’s 2021 session is set to begin Wednesday. Though Democratic majorities passed most of their major gun-control proposals last year, there could be more in the upcoming session.

Last year’s gun rally featured strict security protocols at the State Capitol, including a ban on firearms and police checkpoints attendees had to go through before entering a fenced-in area on the Capitol grounds. In the runup to the event, the FBI arrested three men with alleged ties to white supremacist groups, accusing them of planning violence at the Richmond rally. Last month, one of the men was sentenced to five years in prison.

Police made just one arrest during the rally, charging a young Richmond woman with violating the state’s anti-mask law even as other masked gun supporters went unbothered. That charge was dropped.

Public safety officials said they’re prepared for this year’s event.

“Virginia Capitol Police have been planning with our law enforcement partners and other stakeholders for quite some time as we prepare for the 2021 General Assembly session and its related activities,” said Virginia Capitol Police spokesman Joe Macenka. “Beyond that, we typically do not share operational details or intelligence information for the simple reason we do not want to endanger either the public or our officers.”

Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said state officials are in regular communication with the FBI and began preparing for VCDL’s planned car rally weeks ago.

“The events of last Wednesday and now the shutting down of several social media platforms has possibly changed the calculus for purposes of our preparation,” he said. “We’re going to take everything very seriously and prepare accordingly. At this point we’re taking any and all threats seriously.”

On the website for the upcoming rally, VCDL says its events haven’t been violent before.

“And we don’t expect that to change,” the site says. “So pack the family in the car and take a road trip!”

Gov. Ralph Northam has sent 2,000 Virginia National Guard soldiers to Washington since the attack on the Capitol and says they will remain “as long as we are needed.”

A pro-gun demonstrator at a rally on the Capitol grounds in January, held in opposition to proposed new gun control laws, holds a makeshift Gadsen flag. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

In early July, Virginia Beach police officers responded to a call about a man threatening to shoot himself in the head in his ex-girlfriend’s driveway after she broke up with him. According to court documents, they found a loaded gun in his car.

Less than a week later, they received a call about a man who allegedly pointed a handgun at his neighbor’s forehead, said “I want to know why this place is creeping on me” and threatened to shoot if he didn’t get an answer. When officers went to the man’s home, they found him driving slowly across his front yard with an assault-style rifle across his chest and a handgun wedged by the passenger seat. At one point he reportedly said: “I could have taken all of you.”

In mid-August, a Virginia Beach officer learned a woman who had previously been diagnosed with PTSD and bipolar disorder had said she had planned to shoot herself at Mount Trashmore Park but didn’t go through with it, explaining that “families started showing up and that it wasn’t her time.” She said she would wait until she officially lost her job, then do it.

All three people had substantial risk orders filed against them under the state’s new red flag law, which lets local authorities temporarily ban people from possessing or buying guns if they’re found to be a safety risk. The orders were filed despite Virginia Beach’s self-professed status as a “Second Amendment Constitutional City,” a moniker approved by its city council via a resolution passed in January under pressure from the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group. The vote drew wide attention, coming about seven months after a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that killed 12 people.

Though local politicians in many conservative-leaning Virginia communities voted last year to symbolically declare their opposition to Democratic-supported gun control measures, court records show that law enforcement agencies in some of those localities are already using the red flag law to try to prevent people from hurting themselves or others.

“Clearly the law is working when law enforcement are taking advantage of this tool in so many situations,” said Lori Haas, Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which has advocated for the red flag law and numerous other gun restrictions.

Of at least 21 red flag cases filed in July and August, the first two months of the law’s existence, roughly half occurred in counties and cities that passed pro-gun resolutions after the Democratic takeover of the General Assembly in elections last November, court records show.

“I am surprised, quite honestly, that so many have done this,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, who has argued the state could already take guns from people suffering mental health crises through temporary detention orders. “It just doesn’t make any sense why they’re using it the way they are.”

In July and August, at least five red flag cases were filed in Virginia Beach, the state’s largest independent city. That matched the number filed in Fairfax County, the state’s most populous locality, where officials did not take a stance against new gun restrictions.

The Virginia Beach Police Department said it has confiscated a total of three firearms under the new process, which spokeswoman Linda Kuehn called “a law that we are obligated to enforce.”

“The council’s resolution did not give us any hesitation as the Police Department is guided by the statutory mandate of the General Assembly legislation,” Kuehn said. “Our endeavor will always be to ensure the safety of our community.”

Guns are not seized in every red flag case, and some people subjected to the orders told authorities they didn’t have any firearms to take.

To take someone’s guns under the law, police have to conduct an initial investigation then have a magistrate or judge sign off on an emergency order suspending the subject’s gun rights for up to 14 days. At a court hearing, that person can make a case to restore the guns. If the judge deems the person a threat, the order can be extended for up to 180 days, but additional hearings can be scheduled to extend the order further..

The red flag law — which gained nationwide traction as a way to prevent mass shootings after the 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Fla. — was one of the most contentious gun proposals passed by the General Assembly earlier this year. Democrats presented it as a common-sense procedure to get guns away from troubled people and reduce gun suicides. Republicans denounced it as constitutionally suspect, saying it allows authorities to effectively strip people of their gun rights without being accused or convicted of a crime.

Opposition to the new, pro-gun control legislature spread throughout the state last year, with local officials in over 100 counties, cities and towns passing resolutions affirming their support of gun rights. Some gun advocates pushed for stronger resistance, suggesting local governments also insist that no local resources be used to enforce new gun laws.

Amherst County residents raise their hands to show support for their county’s “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolution. November 19, 2019. (Graham Moomaw/ Virginia Mercury)

But those resolutions don’t appear to be an impediment for law enforcement agencies that have to handle troubled people with access to guns.

The Virginia Mercury obtained a list of cases and where they occurred through a Freedom of Information Act request filed with the Supreme Court of Virginia’s Office of the Executive Secretary, which administers and supports the statewide court system.

The accounts of what led up to each red flag order are based on documents obtained from local courthouses. The Mercury is not naming the people who had orders filed against them because it is a civil process, not a criminal charge, and many of the cases appear to involve mental health issues.

Two red flag cases were filed in Colonial Heights, where the city council had passed a resolution stating that city funds should not be used to “unconstitutionally restrict Colonial Heights citizens from bearing arms.”

One of those orders was filed as part of ongoing legal proceedings in the case of a man who called 911 in March, said he was thinking of killing his wife and barricaded himself in his home. He was shot by an officer after he came to the door holding a rifle. As a result of the incident, the man faced misdemeanor charges of brandishing a firearm and reckless handling of a firearm. He and his lawyer consented to the red flag order, which was requested jointly with the local prosecutor.

Ashley Henderson, a deputy commonwealth’s attorney in Colonial Heights, said the two sides negotiated a six-month red flag order as a way to “put safeguards in place” to protect the man and the community by “restricting his access to firearms.”

“Both sides found that this was the most effective way to achieve that,” Henderson said.

Court documents indicate that man is a military veteran struggling with PTSD. Police retrieved 13 firearms from his home. As part of the deal, prosecutors agreed not to pursue the charges.

The other Colonial Heights case involved a man who was arrested in connection with a drunken family fight and said he was “tired of the human race,” threatening to kill himself and/or his brother when he got out of jail. He told authorities he didn’t have any guns.

Some red flag orders haven’t progressed past the initial, 14-day emergency phase.

In Frederick County, an emergency order was issued in an apparent family dispute, but a man’s guns were returned to him after he showed up in court and accused his relatives of lying about him.

“The red flag law is wrong because anybody who is spiteful can have someone’s guns taken from them,” the man told the judge, according to The Winchester Star.

Conservatives opposed to the law had argued it could give rise to mischief by being weaponized in disputes between relatives and neighbors. Van Cleave said he was aware of one case where police had investigated someone for a possible red flag order but didn’t issue one once they realized there was no basis for it. He declined to offer details, saying it could lead to litigation.

The new law isn’t just being used in cities and suburbs.

In Floyd County, a man who allegedly had a history of making threats to officers called the local sheriff’s office to ask for a welfare check on a family member. When he was told someone would have to call him back, he allegedly told the dispatcher deputies should “bring their f—cking guns” when they come. He was charged with making a threat over the airways and numerous other offenses the next day. Though a local law-enforcement officer filed for an emergency order, prosecutors chose not to pursue a long-term order and the case was dismissed.

In far Southwest Virginia, Scott County authorities issued a substantial risk order for an “ex-military person” who appeared disoriented and seemed to be struggling with mental health issues, according Sheriff Jeff Edds. The sheriff said he didn’t see the new process as a significant shift for his office since the state law already banned gun possession for people ordered to undergo involuntary mental health treatment.

“It’s just extra paperwork as far as we look at it,” Edds said. “Just a form.”

In early August, deputies in Isle of Wight County were asked to locate a young man for a welfare check requested by Hampton police. They found him passed out behind the wheel in a parking lot, with an open liquor bottle in the center console and an ammunition box in the passenger seat. A loaded handgun — which the man said he bought the day before after a co-worker accused him of unspecified wrongdoing — was under the driver’s seat, but had jammed.

The man reportedly told deputies “he got drunk and didn’t remember what happened afterward” adding “he could not do it to himself.” An emergency substantial risk order was filed against him, after he was taken to a hospital for immediate treatment.

A Virginia judge has ruled that most of the state’s new law requiring background checks on all gun sales does not violate constitutional rights, except for a wrinkle that effectively bans people between the ages of 18 and 21 from buying handguns.

Rejecting the bulk of a challenge from gun-rights groups, Lynchburg Circuit Court Judge F. Patrick Yeatts ruled that the new law — approved this year by the Democratic-led General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam — “does not violate the right to keep and bear arms” when applied to most people.

“Even though private sales and commercial sales are different, the Court is at a loss as to how the historical justifications of preventing felons and the mentally disabled from possessing firearms would allow conditions on commercial sales and not also justify conditions on private sales,” the judge wrote.

But the judge said the law goes beyond that limited purpose for younger gun buyers who could previously buy handguns through private sales but are now automatically rejected through the federal background checks system. Under federal law, licensed gun dealers can sell rifles and shotguns to buyers over 18, but handgun buyers must be at least 21. Federal law does not prohibit people under 21 from buying handguns from unlicensed sellers.

One of the plaintiffs in the case is 18-year-old Wyatt Lowman, who maintains he wants to purchase a handgun from another plaintiff’s private collection.

“Banning types of firearms is a prohibition, not a mere condition, infringing on the right to keep and bear arms and greatly reducing Lowman’s means of self-defense,” the judge wrote.

The judge issued a narrow injunction blocking the state from enforcing the law against 18-,19- and 20-year-olds seeking to buy handguns.

How Virginia plans to let people ban themselves from buying guns
Virginia Mercury, Graham MoomawJuly 6, 2020
A potential buyer tries out a gun which is displayed on an exhibitor’s table during the Nation’s Gun Show on November 18, 2016, at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It was Frederick Vars’s own experience with bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts that first got him interested in the idea of letting people ban themselves from buying guns.

To him, the idea of a voluntary do-not-sell list as a preemptive option for people worried about what they might do in darker moments of irrationality seemed like common sense. But would anyone use it?

To answer that question, Vars, a law professor at the University of Alabama, and a team of researchers surveyed 200 psychiatric patients. That 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed journal of the American Association of Suicidology, found that 46 percent of respondents said they would sign up for a do-not-sell list.

“That was a moment where for me it went from kind of an academic idea into realizing that if you could get a lot of people signing up you really have a chance to save a lot of lives,” Vars said in an interview.

In Virginia, it’s not just an idea anymore.

This year, the Democratic-led General Assembly passed legislation creating the Virginia Voluntary Do Not Sell Firearms List, making Virginia one of the first states to put Vars’s concept into practice. Because the legislation had a delayed effective date, the list – which will tie in to the existing background check system – is scheduled to be up and running in the summer of 2021.

The bill didn’t receive as much attention as other high-profile gun restrictions that took effect last week, like universal background checks, a one-handgun-a-month policy and a red flag law that lets authorities temporarily seize guns from troubled people. But some supporters see it as unique, pitching it as a libertarian-friendly way to address a form of gun violence that’s far more common than the mass shootings that make worldwide headlines.

“It’s voluntary. It’s not the government taking away your rights,” Vars said. “It’s you making that decision.”

Nearly two-thirds of Virginia gun deaths are suicides, according to Virginia Department of Health data presented to policymakers last year. From 2007 to 2018, more than 56 percent of suicides involved guns. In 2018, there were 674 gun-related suicides in the state. The state data shows most firearm suicides involve handguns, and White men are more likely to be victims of gun suicide than other demographic groups.

The new law will allow anyone over 18 to add themselves to the list, designed to be kept confidential, by filling out a form with a copy of their photo ID and mailing it or delivering it to the Virginia State Police. Once a person is on the list, it will be against the law for them to purchase or possess a gun and unlawful for anyone to knowingly sell or give a gun to a person on the list. If someone on the list changes their mind, they can be removed after waiting 21 days.

The concept has drawn comparisons to voluntary gambling exclusion programs, designed to let people ban themselves from casinos if they feel they’re losing control.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the legislation, said he thought the idea might get bipartisan support, particularly because pro-gun Republicans often say mental health, not lax gun regulation, is the primary problem. He was wrong.

“Here I have a bill that takes the mental health problem head-on and is completely voluntary to the person who’s the subject of it. And you can take yourself off the list whenever you want,” Surovell said. “I thought it would be a no-brainer. But I couldn’t get anybody else on the other side to agree.”

The bill passed both the state Senate and House of Delegates on party-line votes, though Del. Carrie Coyner, a Republican from suburban Chesterfield County who broke with her party on a few other gun issues like banning bump stocks, noted she had intended to vote for it.

The main argument raised against the bill was the fear that people could be added to it without their knowledge or consent.

During debate on the Senate floor in February, Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, said it  could be “probably a lot of fun” because he could conceivably put his Senate seatmate on the list.

“If he happens to leave his wallet and I take his driver’s license and I get a photocopy of that driver’s license, I can actually put this gentleman on the voluntary do not sell me a gun list,” Cosgrove said.

The bill specifies that it’s a criminal offense to fraudulently add someone else to the list.

In Washington, the only other state with a similar law, the process to get on the list is stricter, requiring people to file paperwork in person at their local courthouse, with the clerk verifying their identity.

Darren Wright, a spokesman for the Washington State Patrol, said he did not know of any cases of someone being added to the list without their knowledge.

The Washington program, which passed in 2018, has not seen heavy use. Wright said 13 people have asked to be entered into the system.

Vars called the level of participation in Washington so far “disappointing,” but said it’s important to make people aware of the program and make it easy to sign up for it.

In that regard, Virginia having a mail-in option instead of requiring a trip to the courthouse could encourage more participation.

“Going down there and having to look somebody in the eye and say ‘I don’t think I’m safe, I’ve had suicidal thoughts,’ it’s a barrier,” Vars said. “I think the Virginia bill is better in that way.”

Surovell said he expects people will learn from their mental health providers about the list being an option.

Lauren Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, said her agency is “planning to reach out to behavioral health stakeholders well in advance of implementation.”

The law requires several state regulatory agencies – the Board of Counseling, Board of Medicine, Board of Nursing and Board of Psychology –  to formally notify their licensees about the program within 60 days of it taking effect next July.

“The research shows when people are informed about it, it’s attractive to a high percentage,” Vars said.

A potential buyer tries out a gun which is displayed on an exhibitor’s table during the Nation’s Gun Show on November 18, 2016, at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Two unresolved pieces of Gov. Ralph Northam’s gun policy agenda have cleared the Virginia General Assembly as the legislative session nears its end.

Legislation to require criminal background checks on all gun sales and restore the state’s former one-handgun-a-month rule won final approval Saturday in the state Senate.

The passage of the two bills means seven of the eight proposals Northam called for after last year’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach are heading to his desk to be signed.

“Today, this year, Virginia has said enough is enough. The emergency of gun violence must end. This legislation will help get us there,” Northam said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “Thank you to the many gun violence prevention advocates, some of you still grieving over the loss or injury of a loved one, who have fought for years for today. And thank you to the legislators who finally listened to the voices of Virginians and voted to pass commonsense gun safety legislation.”

Democratic legislators had been negotiating the finer points of the proposals. On both bills, the House of Delegates agreed to more moderate approaches favored by the Senate.

The background checks bill — a top priority Democrats and gun-control advocates have championed for years — would close the so-called gun show loophole that allows private gun sales without no criminal history check required for the buyer. The Northam administration and House Democrats preferred a broader version of the bill that would also cover gun transfers, which supporters said would avoid creating another loophole and reduce the number of guns changing hands with no regulatory oversight.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, had argued the House approach was too broad and could potentially trip up gun owners who lend or give a gun to someone else with no nefarious intent.

“Basically, they accepted our position,” Petersen said on the Senate floor Saturday.

One the new law is enacted, private sellers will be required to go through a licensed firearms dealer for a background check, ensuring a would-be buyer can legally own a firearm. Gun dealers would be allowed to charge a fee of up to $15 per for a check performed on a private seller’s behalf.

The second bill would restore the law limiting handgun purchase to one per month, a restriction supporters say will help crack down on gun trafficking to other states. The former law was in effect from 1993 to 2012.

The Senate insisted on including an exemption for concealed-carry permit holders. The legislature is also moving to tighten the process for getting a concealed carry permit by requiring applicants to complete an in-person gun safety course. Under current law, those courses could be taken online.

The other big-ticket gun bills that passed would require people to report stolen firearms, create extreme risk protective orders allowing authorities to temporarily sieze guns from people deemed a threat, give local governments more power to ban guns in public spaces, tighten laws designed to make guns inaccessible to children and prohibit gun possession by people who are subject to permanent protective orders.

A bill Northam backed that would have banned assault-style firearms failed in a Senate committee.

General Assembly

2020 Gun Legislation

February 28, 2020

Parts of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s sweeping gun control legislation have won final passage in the General Assembly.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate gave final passage to several pieces of gun control legislation Friday.

That includes a red flag bill to allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from people deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others, and legislation giving local governments more authority to ban guns in public places.

HB 674: Authorizes removing firearms from persons posing substantial risk

Status: Passed House and Senate, awaits signature by Northam

Sponsors: Representatives Rip Sullivan, Betsy Carr, Eileen Filler-Corn, Dan Helmer, Chris Hurst, Mark Levine, Alfonso Lopez, and Kathleen Murphy

SB 35: Authorizes Localities to Prohibit Guns at Public Events 

Status: Passed Senate

Sponsors: Representatives Scott Surovell, Jennifer Boysko, Creigh Deeds, Adam Ebbin, John Edwards, Barbara Favola, Jenn McClellan, Joe Morrissey

SB 69: Prohibits Purchasing more than One Handgun per Month

Status: Passed Senate

Sponsors: Representatives Mamie Locke, Jennifer Boysko, Adam Ebbin, Kaye Kory, Jenn McClellan, Joe Morrissey, Dick Saslaw

SB 70: Requires a Background Check for the Transfer of Firearms

Status: Passed Senate

Sponsors: Representatives Louise Lucas, Jennifer Boysko, Lynwood Lewis, Jenn McClellan, Dick Saslaw, Joe Morrissey

Other Considerations

Sanctuary counties: Inside Virginia’s gun rights resistance

Source: BBC World News

By Joel Gunter
February 13, 2020

Democrats won control of the Virginia House and Senate in November for the first time in 24 years, and they immediately proposed a raft of gun control measures from universal background checks to restrictions on high capacity magazines. The bills came as no surprise – the Democrats had campaigned heavily on gun control, backed by funding from activist groups which comprehensively outspent the National Rifle Association in its home state. Democratic candidates were responding to a growing clamour for gun control that began with the mass shooting of 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 and was amplified last year when a municipal worker slaughtered 12 people in Virginia Beach.