As number of 2A sanctuaries grow, questions remain over meaning

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: January 2, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.

Governor says ‘consequences’ possible for localities if gun laws aren’t enforced by police

Editor’s Note: This article was published prior to Attorney General Mark Herring issuing a formal opinion on 2A sanctuaries on Dec. 20, in which he said, in part, the resolutions ‘have no legal effect’ and ‘localities and constitutional officers cannot nullify state laws and must comply with gun violence prevention measures the General Assembly may enact.’

PRINCE GEORGE – Over the last several weeks, on the heels of next month’s start to the 2020 General Assembly session, dozens of communities have passed resolutions stating their support for the Second Amendment and their opposition to any laws that would obstruct the rights of their citizens to bear arms. 

The resolutions come weeks after Democrats gained control of both the House of Delegates and State Senate, paired with already holding the governor’s mansion, with many incumbent and re-elected Democrats’ campaigns leading with calls for action in tackling gun violence in the Commonwealth.

Two weeks ago, hundreds of people turned out for Prince George’s board of supervisors meeting where leaders unanimously adopted a resolution declaring itself as a Second Amendment sanctuary county, drawing applause from the capacity crowd inside the boardroom and out in the building’s hallways and parking lot. 

“The Prince George County Board of Supervisors wish to express its intent to stand as a Sanctuary County for Second Amendment rights and to oppose, within the limits of the Constitution of the United States and Commonwealth of Virginia, any efforts to unconstitutionally restrict such rights, and to use such legal means at its disposal to protect the constitutional rights of its citizens to keep and bear arms, including through legal action, the power of appropriation of public funds, and the right to petition for redress of grievances,” an excerpt of the two-page resolution reads.

The number of Virginia communities adopting these or similar resolutions continues to grow as the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a nonprofit organization focused on advocating for the rights of Virginians to keep and bear arms, including their ongoing grassroots effort to encourage residents in dozens of localities to push their elected officials to declare themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, reports over 70 cities, counties, and towns have taken such action since last month. 

With that growing list comes questions from residents on up to lawmakers who have begun to equally ponder what standing the resolutions have legally given Virginia operates as a Dillon Rule state, meaning a locality can only pass laws and execute actions on subject matter the Commonwealth has given them the authority to do so. Those questions resulted in Delegate Jerrauld Jones (D-89) sending a letter to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring seeking a formal opinion from the his office regarding Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions, saying on Twitter, “While I believe there is no binding effect whatsoever, we would benefit from a definitive opinion going into the 2020 session.”

“The bills passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the Governor are binding for our entire Commonwealth and its citizens,” Jones’ letter said. “The legal precedent we would set by allowing communities to selectively ignore those laws at will is alarming and indicative of the same mindset that nearly 150 years ago led this county to dissolve into a civil war. Assuredly, if the duly-elected General Assembly passes measures to advance gun safety in the Commonwealth, I believe the legislature should be able to do so without actions by localities to undermine its efforts.”

He added, “A formal opinion would be helpful and instructive to local officials across the state as Boards of Supervisors and City Councils continue to receive requests to join the ‘gun sanctuary’ movement. Moreover, I worry that the absence of such an opinion could hamper the legislature’s ability to duly consider and pass gun safety legislation next year,” saying it is “critical” for the General Assembly to know the attorney general’s stance on sanctuary county resolutions so “so that any legislation passed on the subject both addresses and complies with its official opinion.”

When reached for comment, Charlotte Gomer, press secretary for the state attorney general’s office,  say they generally do not comment on pending opinion requests but the office would share any updates when they become available.

“These resolutions appear to be nothing more than symbolic since no new gun laws have passed or even been considered yet,” she continued. “It is not clear what a Second Amendment sanctuary is, what its proponents are hoping to accomplish, or what authority they think they have to preemptively opt-out of gun safety laws, but if the Virginia Citizens Defense League is circulating it, you can bet it’s a bad idea.”

As of the deadline for our December 25 newspaper, the attorney general’s office had yet to offer a formal opinion on sanctuary counties but, the VCDL defines them as “any locality that says it will not enforce any unconstitutional (federal or state) gun laws,” adding, “Many sheriffs are going to take the county’s lead on this and county police could be told to not enforce such laws either.” 

“If the General Assembly passes new gun safety laws, as Virginia voters demanded just a few weeks ago, we expect that everyone will follow the law and keep their citizens safe,” Gomer closed.

Last week, Governor Ralph Northam made his first comments on sanctuary counties, saying “there is not going to be retaliation’ levied toward communities who adopt these resolutions but, there could be “consequences” if laws are not enforced by law enforcement officers in those communities.

“If we have constitutional laws on the books and law enforcement officers are not enforcing those laws, there are going to be some consequences but, I will cross that bridge if and when we get to it,” he said during a stop in Hampton Roads. The governor did not detail specific “consequences” during his comments.

“They can continue to have their meetings. They can continue to make sanctuary counties but, we are going to do what Virginians have asked us to do,” Northam continued, adding, “We are not going to take people’s guns away.

Speaking to concerns about the constitutionality of legislation proposed during July’s special session on gun violence following the May mass shooting in Virginia Beach and set to be reintroduced next month, ranging from increased background checks, reinstating limits on handgun purchases to one per month, banning “assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, bump stocks and silencers,” and a law “prohibiting all individuals subject to final protective orders from possessing firearms,” among others, the governor said the proposals are, in fact, constitutional.

“Any law that we pass in Richmond and the eight pieces of legislation that I put on the table back in July, they are constitutional so, that is not going to be an issue,” Northam said.

Among those seeking clarity on the issue of sanctuary counties is Delegate Lashrecse Aird (D-63), whose district includes all of Dinwiddie County and part of Prince George, a pair among dozens of localities who passed a sanctuary resolution. In an interview, she explained what she has heard from constituents living in her district, which includes Dinwiddie, the entirety of the City of Petersburg and parts of Chesterfield and Prince George County.

“This is, very much, a diverse district in that it is urban, rural and suburban,” she explained. “In my urban district, which is primarily Petersburg, the emails I have received from citizens are deeply concerning. They want to know about what is going to be done about all of the shootings and the number of murders that are steadily rising as 2019 comes to a close and they are concerned for their families when it comes to gun violence.”

Aird continued, “In my rural area, there is a fear that somehow there guns are going to be taken away but, there are pockets, even in the rural areas, of people who believe it is reasonable to take measures to prevent gun violence and do not believe it will hinder their Second Amendment rights. If I go over to Chesterfield, which is suburban and rural, it only amplifies the mixed opinions that exist in that you have a number of suburban families that adamantly want to see gun violence prevention measures put in place but then you go to the more rural areas, it is back to Second Amendment rights protections so, this district in particular is quite diverse on that stance around gun rights, in general.

Concerns about law-abiding citizens having their guns taken was a recurring theme in supervisors and city council meetings, with a number of residents saying having their firearms taken away is a chief concern of theirs. 

When asked about this concern, Aird responded emphatically, saying “No one’s guns are going to be taken away, period.”

“The federal law prohibits that from occurring,” the delegate continued. “There is nothing in the Commonwealth of Virginia that literally could pass as law that would result in someone’s gun being taken away. In my opinion, the fear is unfounded and misplaced. I think that this conversation, for too long, has been isolated around not [being] willing to have a conversation around guns in general and that is what you see happening.”

“The measures that have been discussed broadly – universal background checks, restoring one-handgun-a-month, taking away or limiting high-capacity magazines – do not result in someone losing any of their Second Amendment rights,” she said.

As fellow delegate Jones seeks an opinion from Attorney General Herring on sanctuary counties, even though Aird said she too would like to have some clarity ahead of next month’s session, she believes the opinion, if penned by Herring, would be of greater value to localities.

“I believe as political leaders, these localities are responding to their constituents, as they should,” she said. “However, when it comes to the law and understanding exactly what the law allows for, I believe this will provide clarity to them as it results in what they are responsible for doing and not doing.”

Aird elaborated, “Symbolically, these resolutions are fine. They are a symbolic representation of an endorsement from these leaders to their constituents and there is no problem with that but, I also don’t believe these resolutions can be or should be conflated with law and it will be important for the attorney general to make that clear for these localities that have enacted these resolutions.”

She added, when asked about her views on gun reform, she remarked that she is “in favor of gun violence prevention policies to move forward but,” Aird will, “evaluate each of those one by one,” saying she is not planning to carry forward any legislation related to the subject as it is not aligned with her areas of expertise.

“My position has always been that I don’t give anything a blanket endorsement of support and I look at each piece of legislation as it is drafted very carefully because no bill is always the same and I operate under the best information I have at the time,” the delegate continued.

The General Assembly returns to session in early January.

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