By Brandon Martin and Debbie Hall
Local authorities said they have responded to calls from many about changes that may be proposed to firearms legislation following the outcome of the November election.
Many of the proposals of most concern to residents were among a sweeping gun control package Gov. Ralph Northam introduced during a July 2019 special session of the General Assembly, Patrick County Sheriff Dan Smith said. Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced a list of gun-control policies to be voted on in a special session following the May 31 attack which led to the death of 12 people at the Virginia Beach Municipal Building.
“It’s an emergency here in Virginia, and it’s time to take action,” Northam told the Associated Press at the time. “Every one of these pieces of legislation will save lives.”
Less than two hours into the special session, Virginia lawmakers abruptly adjourned the meeting and postponed any movement on gun laws until after the November elections.
Following big wins for Democrats in that election where they took control of both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly, Northam looks to make strides on gun legislation again with this being the first time since 1993 that Democrats have had full control to enact their agenda.
“Dealing with the gun violence in Virginia will be a top priority of our administration,” Northam said. “Now certainly with a Democratic Senate and House, I believe we can move forward with common sense gun legislation.
Among the policies that Northam hopes to get passed is legislation on universal background checks, closing a loophole allowing private citizens to sell guns without getting background checks. He also looks to place a ban on assault weapons, high-capacity ammunition magazines, silencers and devices that increase a gun’s firing rate known as “bump stocks.”
When asked if he would confiscate assault weapons from Virginians that already possessed them, Northam responded by saying, “No ma’am, not at this stage. We’re looking at banning the sales of assault weapons … that would be what we would start with.”
Additional legislation up for consideration is reinstating a law repealed in 2012 that limited handgun purchases to one per month and proposing a new law requiring anyone whose firearm is lost or stolen to report it to police within 24 hours. Northam also is proposing enacting a “red-flag law” where courts can seize guns from people that a judge deems a threat to themselves or others.
He has also stated that he would like to expand a law prohibiting anyone subject to a court’s final protective order from possessing a gun as the current law only bans people subject to a protective order for family abuse. The final law he has proposed is one allowing cities and counties the ability to pass stricter gun laws than the state, such as banning firearms from public buildings or events.
“Some of the measures proposed put me at odds with my oath,” Smith said. “Anyone who knows me knows my deep support and appreciation for our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. My oath of office requires me, and every deputy sheriff that I appoint, to swear to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Smith wrote in a social media post that detailed his concerns.
Smith noted that he also has “spoke to several sheriffs in the area, and like me, they’ve been getting many contacts from citizens worried about their gun rights and the impact of any new changes.”
Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry said he encourages residents with concerns to “professionally voice their concerns” in calls to their respective state representatives.
“I firmly believe in the Second Amendment. I enjoy shooting sports, I own guns and I believe in the Second Amendment rights,” Perry said. “Beyond that, I am waiting to see what bills” lawmakers may consider.
Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper said that he had several calls Monday from those voicing concerns about potential changes to firearms legislation.
“The majority of citizens are still opposed to changing” laws pertaining to firearms, said Draper, who also is a board member of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association. “There are parts of it I think won’t be a problem, but other” parts may be, he said.
Concerns are so rampant that some localities also have adopted Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions. Resolutions are carried up to the state legislature, imploring lawmakers not to back laws that county leaders say target law-abiding gun owners.
Measures like the resolutions are seen as a direct referendum to potential legislation being pushed by Democratic lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly and the United States Congress.
Local governing boards in Carroll and Campbell counties were among the first, and on Monday, officials in Patrick and Appomattox counties followed suit. (See related story, Patrick County Now A Second Amendment Sanctuary)
Henry County Administrator Tim Hall said a resident is scheduled to address the Henry County Board of Supervisors at their Nov. 26 meeting, however, a proposed resolution is not yet on the agenda.
“That would be completely driven by the board,” Hall said of the county’s consideration of a Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution.
When asked to respond if they would support a resolution, Joe Bryant, of the Collinsville District and Tommy Slaughter, of the Reed Creek District, said they would wait to comment until after the matter was discussed as a group.
Dr. J. David Martin, of the Iriswood District, said “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution.” He declined additional comment.
Jim Adams, board chairman and of the Blackberry District; Debra Buchanan, vice chairman and of the Horsepasture District; and Ryan Zehr, of the Ridgeway District, could not be reached for a comment.
Before the vote in Patrick, Lock Boyce, of the Peters Creek District, said that while he agreed with “some of what the governor wants to do, some of the other things, like not allowing children under the age of 18 to possess, handle or have a firearm” prompted him to support the resolution. “A ten-round clip proposal is just not going to work in Patrick County, I don’t think, and there were some other things that I didn’t like,” he said.
Smith said those issues and other also are among the concerns he has heard.
“Do you want to be told that you can’t have a magazine for your hand gun that is capable of firing more than ten rounds of ammunition,” Smith asked in a social media post. “Do you want to be automatically criminalized because you couldn’t afford to pay $35 for a background check if your father gives you a gun to protect yourself with from a violent, estranged husband. These are some of the proposals that have been introduced for passage.”
Noting that “it is my responsibility to see that you are not subjected to unlawful and unreasonable searches of your home by my deputies,” Smith added he also is responsible to ensure “that you are not treated inhumanely while you are in custody …. that your freedom or property is not taken from you without probable cause, as the fourth amendment demands. It is also my responsibility to protect your right to keep and bear arms.”
Analysis of the two latest polls regarding the issue show a growing trend amongst Virginians to increase gun-control measures. Support for such measures was at 54 percent in a 2018 poll compared to only 41 percent opposing new laws. Similar numbers of 55 percent in support and 41 percent opposing were found in 2016.
When it comes to ending the requirement for a permit to carry a concealed firearm, 76 percent of voters opposed the idea in 2018 as well as 84 percent in 2016. More than six in 10 Virginians support a ban on assault weapons, 65 percent in 2018 and 62 percent in 2016.
General support or opposition for gun legislation is mostly divided by party lines. While Democrats may have made gains by carrying districts encompassing larger cities, if the resolutions in Patrick and Campbell counties are any indicator, the more rural communities see the latest election results as far from a mandate on gun control.
One thing is certain, Draper said, “It will be interesting to see how the General Assembly addresses some of the public’s concerns during the upcoming session.”
Martinsville Police Chief Eddie Cassady said he has not had heard concerns about legislation that may be proposed.