After dozens of Virginia localities — including several in Southwest Virginia — declared themselves Second Amendment “sanctuaries” in recent weeks, Attorney General Mark Herring issued an advisory opinion that the resolutions “have no legal effect.”
Citing requirements in the Virginia Constitution and state code for local governments to follow state law, Herring wrote in his four-page opinion that “these resolutions neither have the force of law nor authorize localities or local constitutional officials to refuse to follow or decline to enforce gun violence prevention measures enacted by the General Assembly.”
The opinion comes as counties, towns and cities approved resolutions opposed to proposed gun control laws after November’s elections resulted in historic wins for Democrats, who will take control of both houses of the Virginia General Assembly in January. Although local leaders have claimed the declarations are mostly symbolic, some resolutions declared that public funds would not be used to restrict Second Amendment rights.
Most in Southwest Virginia, like Washington County, used language similar to a draft resolution circulated by pro-gun groups like the Virginia Citizens Defense League. Others, like Bristol, approved more general resolutions without invoking the term “sanctuary.”
It’s unclear what gun control laws the General Assembly may ultimately pass, but Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam proposed a number of bills when he called the legislature back to Richmond for a special session focused on gun violence earlier this year in the wake of a mass shooting in Virginia Beach. Those efforts proved futile when the Republican-controlled legislature quickly adjourned the session.
Northam’s proposed package of bills at the time included required background checks on all firearm sales, an assault weapons ban and the creation of an “extreme risk protective order” to allow authorities to temporarily separate a person from firearms if the person poses an immediate threat to themselves or others.
Advocates argue that these kinds of bills will improve safety and reduce gun violence, but the potential for new regulations after Democratic leadership has led more rural and conservative localities to issue Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions.
Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, wrote a letter to Herring, a Democrat, earlier this month requesting a formal opinion to provide guidance to local officials grappling with requests to issue sanctuary resolutions.
“The bills passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the Governor are binding for our entire Commonwealth and its citizens. 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 one hundred and fifty years ago led this country to dissolve into a civil war,” Jones wrote in his request.
In a statement accompanying the public release of the opinion Friday, Herring said, “When the General Assembly passes new gun safety laws they will be enforced, and they will be followed. These resolutions have no legal force, and they’re just part of an effort by the gun lobby to stoke fear.”
Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the current majority leader in the House of Delegates who will serve as minority leader in the next legislative session, issued a statement Friday afternoon drawing attention to what he sees as a contradiction between the sanctuaries opinion and Herring’s previous decision to not defend Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriages when Herring concluded the prohibition was unconstitutional, despite what Gilbert argues was a statutory requirement to do so.
“Attorney General Herring’s opinion is interesting, as it directly contradicts his own statements and actions regarding the supremacy of state law over the preferences of the officials who must enforce them,” Gilbert said.
The General Assembly convenes Jan. 8 for its 2020 session.