As they kick off their 2020 session, Virginia lawmakers looking to pass gun safety legislation will have to contend with a pro-gun movement that has picked up steam since the November elections.
Since the state elections, which brought Democratic control to Virginia’s government, the state has experienced a sweeping “Second Amendment Sanctuary” movement, in which counties and cities have passed legally non-binding resolutions that declare support for local citizens to exercise their right to carry weapons.
The effort is being led by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun organization. According to VCDL, 124 counties, cities and towns have so far passed resolutions. The organization’s President Philip Van Cleave told CNN that the effort has been purely “grassroots” and is about protecting the right to gun ownership by “law abiding citizens.”
“They have truly woken a sleeping giant. People that didn’t vote last election, they are wide awake and unhappy. They are looking at the threats that (Gov. Ralph) Northam, (Attorney General Mark) Herring and the General Assembly have given…these are really bad bills. This is an uprising,” Van Cleave told CNN.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said in an advisory opinion released last month that the resolutions passed by localities across Virginia declaring themselves exempt from new gun safety laws that the General Assembly may enact have “no legal effect.” Herring issued the opinion after a request from state Del. Jay Jones, in the face of the gun sanctuary resolutions.
He went on to note that the localities and local constitutional officers “cannot nullify state laws” and must follow gun violence prevention measures passed by the General Assembly.
However, in a 12-page response to Herring, the VCDL, argued that if the state, including the Attorney General, Governor and General Assembly, enact bills that go against the US Constitution, the law has “no legitimacy” and is “void.” The authority then falls under local government “to refuse to enforce such unconstitutional laws, and even to protect the People against enforcement.”
In Virginia, Democrats — who had not had control of the executive and legislative branches of government in more than 20 years — plan to push through a progressive agenda that includes gun safety legislation.
Democrats won majorities in the House and Senate in the November elections through the help of Everytown for Gun Safety. The gun control group, aligned with billionaire and now-presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, spent $2.5 million in the 2019 cycle flipping Republican seats to Democrat.
In November, a flurry of newly filed bills signaled the Democrats’ efforts to restrict gun access in the 2020 legislative session. Among the top bills being pushed include legislation from state Del. Kenneth Plum, a Democrat representing Fairfax, that will institute background checks in most cases, with some exclusions, such as sales between family members, sales of antique firearms and through inheriting a firearm.
Other legislation being considered in this year’s session include a bill from Democratic Del. Richard Saslaw that would prohibit the sale, transport, possession, transfer and manufacturing of an assault firearm. The state will also look to mark June 1 as “Gun Violence Awareness Day in Virginia,” the day after the 2019 Virginia Beach mass shooting that killed 12 people.
That mass shooting is cited by Democrats and Everytown as a catalyst for guns being a key issue in 2020.
“Too many Virginians have lost their lives to guns and it is well past time that we enact these gun safety measures that will save lives and make our communities safer,” Herring told CNN.
The attorney general said it is “outrageous that a generation of individuals is growing up” with the idea that they could potentially be shot or the victim of a mass shooting.
Other legislation to watch
Being that it is a presidential election year, state officials have made voting a major area of reform. This is highlighted by the fact that some of the first bills on the docket are changes to the state’s voting requirements. The first measure up would change absentee ballot requirements, permitting any registered voter to vote early without having to provide an excuse.
Officials will also look to change the state’s current photo ID requirement, changing the election law so that an eligible voter could use documents like a utility bill or bank statement as identification.
The legislature will also consider a set of bills aimed at cracking down on hate crimes. Herring said Tuesday he will reintroduce a set of bills aimed at updating hate crime and domestic terrorism laws.
“We have all seen how hate can turn deadly with frightening frequency in America, at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, at an African American church in Charleston and even here in Virginia in our own backyard in Charlottesville,” Herring told CNN. “This is a huge problem and it’s not going away, which is why we have got to step up and do more about it.”