The now Democratic-controlled Prince William Board of County Supervisors is poised to adopt a resolution Tuesday urging state lawmakers to pass a handful of new gun-safety laws and boost funding for mental health treatment and firearm safety training.
The measure is the newly elected board’s response to the “constitutional county” resolution adopted during the last meeting of the previous county board, which had a 6 to 2 Republican majority, and reflects the political sea change under way as board switches to Democratic control.
A resolution declaring Prince William a “constitutional county” was brought forward by outgoing Board Chairman Corey Stewart, a Republican, at the urging of gun-rights supporters led by the Virginia Civil Defense League. The group has persuaded more than 100 Virginia counties to adopt similar resolutions since the Nov. 5 election, when Democrats won control of the Virginia General Assembly with a promise to pass a slate of new gun regulations.
Incoming County Board Chair Ann Wheeler, a Democrat, said the new resolution would not repeal the constitutional county resolution but rather voice the new board’s support for some of the gun-safety bills lawmakers will begin debating in Richmond this week.
“There’s no intent to overturn the constitutional county resolution," Wheeler said Saturday. “You know, I believe that following the Constitution and gun safety legislation are not mutually exclusive.”
Indeed, the first few clauses of the proposed resolution note that every elected official in the commonwealth of Virginia, including county supervisors, must swear to uphold both the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions.
The measure also states the board “wishes to express its commitment to the rights of law-abiding citizens of Prince William County to legally keep and bear arms.”
But the resolution goes on to detail the state and county’s challenges with gun violence and mental illness, including that more than 39,000 Americans died of gun violence in 2017. Of the 1,028 Virginians who were killed by guns in 2017, the most recent year for which state statistics are available, 674 committed suicide, the resolution says.
The resolution also states that Virginia is one of 17 states in which more people are killed by gunfire than automobile accidents annually. Also, Virginia women are fatally shot by their intimate partners at a higher rate than the national average.
The measure also notes that mental illness is an increasingly costly problem for Prince William County. The police department transported 555 emotionally disturbed patients to various medical facilities throughout the state in 2018, an endeavor that required about 7,551 staff hours, the resolution states.
As a result of those challenges, the resolution urges the Virginia General Assembly to:
- Pass the so-called “red-flag bill,” which would allow a judge to temporarily limit access to firearms by individuals deemed a threat to themselves or others “while preserving due process;”
- Eliminate potential background check loopholes by requiring background checks for all gun purchases through a federal firearms license;
- Support laws limiting children’s access to firearms to reduce adolescent suicides and accidental adolescent shootings;
- Provide additional state funding for firearms safety education;
- Waive sales tax on gun safes and gun safety locks to promote safe gun handling practices; and
- Strengthen penalties for adults who allow unsafe access to guns to children.
The measure does not mention either Senate Bill 16, a controversial bill that would ban the possession of assault-style, semi-automatic weapons in Virginia, or HB 421, which would allow localities to ban guns from public buildings, such as public libraries or the James J. McCoart Administration Building.
Wheeler said she drafted the resolution with the help of county staff and chose which gun-safety bills to include for the board’s endorsement. Wheeler further said she looked to similar resolutions passed by the Manassas City Council and the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors for guidance. Both localities included support for proposed gun-safety bills in resolutions passed in December.
The measure is “really my resolution that I put forward,” Wheeler said. “But it doesn’t mean [that other gun-safety bills] won’t be something that’s discussed in the future.”
Wheeler said she told all seven of her fellow supervisors about the resolution before including it on the agenda for the board’s first meeting this Tuesday, Jan. 7.
Given the board’s 5 to 3 Democratic majority, the resolution is likely to be approved.
Only one board member, however, responded to an email requesting comment over the weekend.
Supervisor Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan, said he will support the resolution and, like Wheeler, sees no contradiction with the constitutional county resolution the previous board approved in December.
“Supporting the Constitution and promoting responsible firearm ownership can go hand-in-hand. As such, to my knowledge, there will be no effort to repeal the previous resolution,” Boddye said in an email.
Boddye further noted that as a survivor of gun violence, the issue of gun violence is personal.
“When I was around 3 years old, the house I grew up in was struck by gunfire during a drive-by shooting,” Boddye wrote. “Bullets came through my bedroom window but thankfully neither I nor my parents - who rushed in right afterward - were hit by anything.”
Boddye further said he ran on improving access to mental health services for county residents and said increased state funding for mental health screening and treatment would help the board deliver on that promise.
“Increased mental health services would also free up law enforcement resources which often times get diverted to addressing mental health incidents,” Boddye wrote.
The vote is on the agenda for the afternoon portion of the meeting, which begins at 2 p.m. When asked why the board chose not wait to vote until the evening meeting, when more residents might be able to attend to voice their opinions, Wheeler said it is because the 7:30 p.m. will be held entirely in closed session to allow the board to review security procedures.
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