By Christina Amano Dolan
Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia legislators recently accepted the governor’s substitute to a bill banning firearms on and near Capitol Square, as well as in state buildings. Lawmakers voted last year to ban firearms from the state Capitol.
Senate Bill 1381, introduced by Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, D-Alexandria, will make it a Class 1 misdemeanor for a person to possess or transport a firearm or explosive material within Capitol Square and the surrounding area or buildings owned or leased by the commonwealth. Any person convicted of a Class 1 misdemeanor may face a sentence of up to 12 months in jail, a fine up to $2,500, or both.
Current and retired law enforcement officers, active military personnel and others performing official duties are exempted from the restrictions.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s recommendation requested further protection for magistrates. The measure originally allowed magistrates to carry firearms in courthouses, but the substitute now includes magistrates on duty working outside of courthouses and in other government buildings. The Office of the Executive Secretary requested the amendment.
“They are on duty in various locations at all times of day, working on sensitive and sometimes volatile situations,” Ebbin said. “Magistrates are required to accept cash bonds. That requires the magistrate to frequently possess large sums of cash.”
The Senate passed the substitute along party lines, 21-19. The House agreed to the measure mostly along party lines, 52-46.
Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, sponsored an identical bill that was also amended and passed both chambers.
Virginia Democrats passed an existing ban on firearms early last year, similarly excluding police officers and other security personnel. The ban prohibits guns inside the state Capitol and the General Assembly’s adjacent office building but does not extend to Capitol grounds.
The ban will now include Capitol Square and the area bounded by the four roads in each direction. It also includes the sidewalks of Bank Street extending from 50 feet west of the Pocahontas Building entrance to 50 feet east of the Capitol building entrance.
Ebbin said during a February Senate floor hearing that the bill is in the interest of public safety. There was a “close call” incident last year, Ebbin said, when FBI agents arrested three men on firearms charges. Federal officials were concerned the men were headed to Richmond to attend an annual gun-rights rally, people familiar with the investigation told The Washington Post at the time. Northam had declared a state of emergency ahead of the rally, citing “credible threats of violence surrounding the event.”
Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, said the measure is about politics, not public safety. The VCDL is a nonprofit organization that advocates for Second Amendment rights.
Van Cleave said Capitol Police protect legislators, so a weapons ban is unnecessary.
“They don’t like gun owners exercising their First Amendment rights nor their Second Amendment rights,” Van Cleave said. “These efforts are more to shut us up than anything else.”
Van Cleave’s organization helped organize a gun rally last January with over 22,000 gun-rights supporters. The organization called for thousands of its armed supporters to gather on Capitol grounds to oppose gun control legislation. The event ended without incident.
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, said in last week’s Senate hearing that she believes the measure is an attack on the Constitution.
“I will be voting against any bill that has anything to do with restricting law-abiding citizens’ ability to protect themselves,” Chase said. “I don’t even understand why we are introducing legislation that goes against our Constitutional rights.”
Chase and other Republican legislators voiced concern for the safety of General Assembly employees when the bill was originally before the Senate. They said police cannot enforce the measure.
“Capitol Police cannot be everywhere, and as great of people they are, we do not properly give them the resources they need to do the job they’ve been asked to do,” Chase said.
Capitol Police and Virginia State Police will “adequately and reasonably” enforce the law, Ebbin stated in a previous email interview.
“The threat of violence and proliferation of firearms in the public square quashes the civil discourse and exchange of ideas we so value in Virginia,” Ebbin stated.
The new law goes into effect July 1.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.