ABINGDON, Va. — Washington County may soon join a wave of other Virginia localities by declaring itself a “Second Amendment Sanctuary,” pending a decision by county supervisors Tuesday night.
The discussion comes on the heels of an election earlier this month in which Democrats won unified control of Virginia’s state government for the first time in 25 years. As Democrats prepare to take over the General Assembly in January, gun rights advocates fear the change will lead to a number of gun-control measures being passed into law. As a result, several local governments across the state — particularly more rural counties — joined a largely symbolic effort in recent weeks to pass resolutions supporting Second Amendment rights.
The two-page resolution, as proposed by Board Chairman Saul Hernandez and Supervisor Randy Pennington, would declare an intent that public funds would “not be used to restrict Second Amendment rights” and that the board would “oppose unconstitutional restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms through such legal means as may be expedient, including without limitation court action.”
“I want to send a message from Washington County to Richmond that we’re not in favor [of gun control]” Pennington said Friday.
The Washington County resolution uses similar language to one that Lee County’s Board of Supervisors approved last week and it appears to be typical of other declarations around the state. Leaders in both Lee and Washington said they looked to Campbell County’s declaration as a model. The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun group, has also shared a sample resolution template on its Facebook page.
If approved, the resolution would state that supervisors are “concerned about the passage of any bill containing language which could be interpreted as infringing the rights of the citizens of Washington County to keep and bear arms or could begin a slippery slope of restrictions.”
However, the General Assembly’s next session hasn’t started yet, and it remains to be seen what legislation may ultimately end up being introduced and enacted.
Earlier this year, in the wake of a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, called the General Assembly to Richmond for a special session focused on gun violence. At that time, Northam proposed a number of measures, including mandatory background checks on all firearms sales and transactions; a ban on assault weapons; a limit to one handgun purchase a month; the creation of an extreme risk protection order; and allowing localities to pass firearms ordinances that are stricter than state law.
None of those proposals were signed into law. Republicans quickly adjourned the special session and requested that the Virginia State Crime Commission review potential changes to the state’s firearms and public safety laws. The commission issued a three-page report earlier this month stating that “inconclusive evidence exists to develop recommendations” and “any changes to these laws are policy decisions which can only be made by the General Assembly.”
But Democrats are now positioned to revisit previously proposed bills that they argue will reduce gun violence.
Pennington, who said he owns firearms, is skeptical of whether gun control laws would effectively address issues with violence, which he said tie into how mental health is treated.
“You could lock up all the guns in the United States, but if a criminal wants a gun, he would be able to come up with a gun,” he said.
Sweeping changes may also clash with cultural attitudes toward guns in Southwest Virginia, according to D.D. Leonard, a member of the Lee County Board of Supervisors who introduced the resolution that was approved there.
“Especially here in Southwest Virginia, we’ve all grown up with guns, it’s something that’s been inherited from generation to generation, not only as for hunting but also as for sport shooting,” Leonard said. “Every person should be afforded the ability to be able to defend themselves at any given time.”
Despite the public attention these resolutions are receiving, they don’t appear to have direct implications for local government action —although resolutions like the one proposed in Washington County hint at the potential for future “court action.”
County Administrator Jason Berry deferred to Hernandez in response to questions about the resolution, which was initiated by supervisors.
“They’re not county code,” Hernandez, the board’s chairman, acknowledged about the symbolic nature of the resolutions in an interview Friday. “But I think to me the more important things is if I’m sitting in Richmond and I’m supposed to represent all of Virginia … it should send a message at a minimum to say ‘let’s reach out to these counties and talk to them.’”
He added that he’s been “bombarded” with public interest on the resolution, which he said may be due in part to the cultural significance of the issue and a broader issue of people in Southwest Virginia feeling disconnected from state leaders.
“People feel like they don’t have a voice, like they aren’t represented,” Hernandez said. “It’s almost this sense of (leaders in Richmond) look down on us because we are rural, it’s almost this kind of elitist mentality.”
Richard Schragger, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law who studies constitutional law and state and local governments, described the resolutions as mostly symbolic forms of “political and rhetorical resistance.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has given states room to regulate guns, and individuals and local officials still have to follow state law, regardless of whether they are in a “Second Amendment Sanctuary,” he said.
“Private parties have to comply with state law, they are subject to state law, and if the General Assembly bans certain kinds of automatic weapons, for instance, a local seller, a local gun store, can’t assert that a county is going to protect that person from state prosecution,” he said.