Virginia localities don’t currently have the authority to ban firearms from public buildings, parks or permitted events, but a bill sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell and approved by a state Senate committee on Monday could change that.
The state Senate Judiciary Committee voted 9-5 along party lines Monday morning to approve the measure. It will now go to a floor vote in the state Senate sometime in the coming weeks.
The bill would allow localities to adopt ordinances banning firearms in public buildings, public parks and permitted events in their jurisdictions. For permitted events, localities could pass an ordinance banning firearms from public streets, alleys and sidewalks in the area of the events.
Speaking at the committee meeting Monday, Surovell, D-36th, said the bill doesn’t require gun-free zones in these areas. It just provides localities the option. Surovell represents constituents in Prince William, Fairfax and Stafford counties.
“This bill takes into account the differences within our commonwealth. It doesn’t require any locality to do anything. It simply gives the localities the choice to do something,” Surovell said.
In September, Surovell wrote a column critical of members of a gun-rights group who openly carried AR-15 rifles at a Northern Virginia farmers market in an effort to educate residents about their gun rights.
“…[T]his incident only underscores the need for the commonwealth to prohibit the open carry of assault weapons at a minimum at permitted events or at public assemblages,” Surovell wrote.
Democratic lawmakers, including Gov. Ralph Northam and state Attorney General Mark Herring, have backed similar proposals since the deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. But Republicans have shot down their efforts in previous years.
Now that Democrats have majorities in both the state Senate and House of Delegates, Surovell’s bill, along with a slew of other gun bills, has a better chance of reaching the governor’s desk later this year.
“I have been introducing this legislation since the tragic events in Charlottesville in 2017 but, unfortunately, every year Republican-held committees failed to pass it,” Herring said in a Monday press release. “Allowing localities to restrict the use of firearms at permitted events will make participants, bystanders, communities and law enforcement agencies safer.”
Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, speaking at the meeting, said the Northam administration supports the measure.
“We are very much in support of providing localities the ability to impose reasonable and constitutional restrictions on firearms in buildings, parks and events,” Moran said. “We ask our localities to make very important decisions with respect to budgets, law enforcement and public safety decisions. This should be no different.”
Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-33rd, who represents parts of Loudoun and Fairfax counties and serves on the Senate Judiciary committee, also stated her support for the bill.
“I’ve heard from a number of my constituents. I’ve heard from public officials and employees who are begging for this. This gives them the ability, if they choose, to say that these should be gun-free areas,” Boysko said.
Republican lawmakers Sens. Richard Stuart, R-28th, Ben Chafin, R-38th, Mark Obenshain, R-26th, Ryan McDougle, R-4th, and Tommy Norment, R-3rd, voted against the bill.
Obenshain said the measure would only prevent law-abiding citizens from carrying firearms in these areas, but wouldn’t stop people “with murder in their hearts” from entering gun-free zones.
“This doesn’t do anything about somebody illegally packing a 9-millimeter,” Obenshain said. “This is all about appearance, it has nothing to do with public safety.”
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizen’s Defense League, spoke out against the bill during the meeting. Van Cleave said there hadn’t been any problems with gun owners carrying in the public places addressed in the bill.
“This is a civil right. It should be uniform across the state,” Van Cleave said.
Democrats approved two additional gun bills – a watered down universal background check bill and “red-flag” bill – at the same committee meeting. The latter bill was sponsored by state Sen. George Barker, D-39th, who represents part of Prince William County.
Both bills will head to the floor of the state Senate for a full vote at a later date.
A large gun-rights protest is expected on Monday, Jan. 20, at the Virginia Capitol that will reportedly draw hundreds of armed supporters from both in and outside Virginia.
Reach Daniel Berti at email@example.com