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After Va Beach, A Growing Call To Let Localities Ban Guns In Government Buildings

Laura Swanson, a Richmond resident and Moms Demand Action member
Laura Swanson, a Richmond resident and Moms Demand Action member, waits in line at a July Richmond City Council meeting to speak in support of banning guns from municipal buildings and public parks. Roberto Roldan/WCVE

Richmond City Councilman Michael Jones tried twice last year to pass resolutions on Confederate monuments.

After the deadly march in Charlottesville, he wanted Richmond to take action -- but the dialogue wasn’t all civil.

“We were talking about bricks and mortar and I’m getting threats about hanging me and my children up by the neck,” he recounted.

Jones said he became more concerned when Confederate monument supporters came to City Council open carrying.

“You've got people walking in with guns and I've just received threats,” Jones said. “Are any of those people in this audience today? That's something I had to think about.”

Experiences like that were top of mind for Jones after the mass shooting in Virginia Beach. He immediately called for better security at city hall. And last week, he joined Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney in  introducing an ordinance banning guns in municipal buildings and public parks.

Jones said he doesn’t think a gun ban would have prevented the shooting, but it would add another layer of security.

“You cannot stop a highly motivated person no matter what it is they want to do, but you don’t make it easy for them,” he said.

While weapons are banned in state offices, courtrooms and federal buildings, Virginia law prohibits localities from restricting firearms in any way. It’s called a preemption law, and Virginia is one of 45 states with that kind of statute on the books.

Lawmakers are returning to Richmond next week for  a special session on gun control called by Gov. Ralph Northam in response to the Virginia Beach mass shooting. Ahead of the session, many local officials are asking the General Assembly to allow them to ban weapons in municipal buildings.

For local leaders to implement location-specific gun bans locally, they’d need the General Assembly to take action.

Sen. John Edwards of Roanoke has introduced bills allowing localities to ban guns at local government meetings.

The bill has failed every year, but Edwards is planning to reintroduce it at the special session on July 9.

“You’ve got to do something,” Edwards said. “The people are demanding action. [The Virginia Beach Shooting] brought it to our attention even more.”

Once an NRA-endorsed Democrat, Edwards took up this fight against the preemption law because of pressure from local officials, including in his home town of Roanoke.

"Something Is Wrong With This Picture"

In December, 72-year-old Robert Gravely walked up to the podium during public comment at a Roanoke City Council meeting. He gave a rambling speech. With the council and Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea just feet away, Gravely threatened to shoot them.  

“He says ‘I’ll take you out. I’ll shoot you. I’ll do this,’” Lea said. “You can’t just let that pass.”

The mayor called for a recess. Gravely left, and outside  repeated his threat to a TV crew and police. He was eventually charged with disorderly conduct.

Lea said he feels events like that have become too common. A couple of years ago, he said gun rights activists came into City Council carrying assault rifles. They were seated next to a young girl who had shown up to a meeting to show councilors a painting she had made at school.

“Here you had a rifle and this little girl who probably had no idea what was going on,” Lea said. “That in itself should say to a legislator, ‘Something is wrong with this picture.’”

Like other localities, Roanoke is reexamining their security policies at city hall following the mass shooting in May. But without the ability to ban weapons, Mayor Lea is concerned it won’t be enough.

“We can take precautions about what doors we go out of and what doors we lock, but that can’t stop a loaded weapon,” Lea said. “They’ve got a gun in their pocket and they can legally do that.”

In addition to Roanoke and Richmond, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors also  voted last week to support a ban on firearms in municipal buildings. Norfolk City Council  passed a resolution in June lending general support to gun control efforts at the special session.

Even with the Virginia Beach shooting, local leaders know it will be a long-shot to get gun control bills passed in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. The NRA in Virginia also says it will oppose any location-specific gun bans unless it’s a secured facility.

NRA spokesperson Christopher Kopacki said allowing localities to regulate guns would defeat the purpose of the preemption law. 

“They didn’t want a patchwork of different laws in each jurisdiction and each locality,” he said. “So if you were to cross over from Hanover County to Henrico County to the City of Richmond, that there weren’t three different sets of laws.”

Kopacki also said he believes a gun ban would not make people safer. As proof, he pointed to Virginia Beach’s workplace policy barring city employees from carrying guns at work.

“We really believe and our members believe that you should have the right to defend yourself, carry a firearm unless you are in a secure facility,” Kopacki said.

He said a good example of a secured facility is an airport with TSA checkpoints.

A Different Story In Virginia Beach

While local officials in Democratic leaning cities like Roanoke and Richmond are seemingly united around restricting guns in municipal buildings, the response has played out differently in Virginia Beach.

Just a few days after 12 people were shot a killed in the Virginia Beach Municipal Center, Mayor Bobby Dyer spoke with MSNBC. He questioned whether it was the time to discuss gun reform.

“This is a very recent thing and I think we just gotta be careful that we just don’t have a knee-jerk reaction,” Dyer said.

Virginia Beach City Councilwoman Sabrina Wooten disagrees. She said she doesn’t think it’s a political conversation.

“People are saying to us, during our vigils and our ceremonies, ‘Thank you for having this, but what are you going to do,’” Wooten said.

On June 18, Wooten and councilman Guy Tyler introduced a resolution that would declare the city’s support for banning guns in municipal buildings. Residents who spoke at the Virginia Beach City Council meeting were deeply divided, and council members voted 8 to 2 to  table the resolution.

Wooten said she isn’t surprised about the lack of consensus.

“Virginia Beach is representative of a diverse group, liberal and conservative, and this is also an election year,” she said.

But at a time when Virginians are looking to local leaders in Virginia Beach for answers, Wooten said she wishes they could speak with a unified voice.

At the upcoming special session, Democratic lawmakers are expected to file bills restricting the sale of certain firearms and instituting universal background checks. Republicans will likely oppose those measures, focusing instead on mandatory minimums for violent criminals.

In November, all members of Virginia's legislature are up for reelection making any compromise doubtful.