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Democrats Ban Guns Inside Virginia Capitol Building

Two men in camouflage outfits stand on a sidewalk wearing rifles.
Gun owners rally outside lawmaker’s office buildings during the July 9, 2019 special session on gun violence. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Lawmakers and civilians will no longer be able to bring firearms into most of the Capitol under rules passed in a party-line vote by the General Assembly’s new Democratic majority on Friday.

The rules approved by joint committees undo previous provisions set by Republicans that allowed firearms across most of the Capitol. Under the new guidelines, which go into effect on Saturday, members of the public, lawmakers, and their staff are prohibited from carrying firearms into any legislative space.

For almost two decades, civilians with a concealed carry permit could bring firearms into the Capitol and legislative buildings, such as the Pocahontas Building, where lawmakers have offices and committee meetings.

Democrats argued those rules left lawmakers and the public vulnerable to accidents and deliberate violence. A GOP lawmaker accidentally misfired his gun in his office in 2006, causing minor injuries to himself, and another left a pistol unattended in a committee room in 2017.

“These are rules that should have passed a long, long time ago,” said Democratic Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax).

In practice, Capitol Police Chief Col. Anthony Pike said the policy wouldn’t be enforced against lawmakers, though he said they would report violations to leadership in the House and Senate. [1]

Democratic lawmakers argued that similar rules were common even in conservative-leaning states like Arkansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma. But they ran into flak from Republicans for initially suggesting that the rules change was requested by Capitol Police.

“This is a recommendation from our Capitol Police who we trust every day, and who have kept us safe, and I trust their judgment,” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring told the Joint Rules Committee meeting.

Democrats later walked back those claims after Col. Pike distanced himself from Herring’s remarks. Col. Pike said he was consulted after Democrats told him their intentions to enact a firearms ban a few weeks ago, and provided feedback on implementation.

“I just think that entire effort to put this on Capitol Police was disgusting,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenendoah).

Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), former Speaker of the House, called the move a “deliberate misrepresentation.”

Col. Pike declined to say whether the thought Democrats were being misleading.

“I’m not going to get into that,” he said.

Republicans were upset at both the rules and the process used to arrive at them. GOP members of the committee said they were notified of their appointments late Thursday and Friday morning, and were only handed the policy at the meeting.

“The lack of transparency is really concerning, and Virginians should be worried,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover).

The rules come amid heightened tensions over a package of gun control bills put forward by Democrats, including a proposed assault weapons ban. Gov. Ralph Northam and his fellow Democrats have pointed to polling showing the majority of Virginians support many of the proposals.

The Northam administration estimates at least 10,000 gun owners will rally at the Capitol on January 20 to protest the proposals; Philip Van Cleave, the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, told VPM he expects at least 30,000 people to attend.

Online conspiracy theorists have spun stories involving mass gun confiscation led by National Guard troops, power cutoffs, and other supposed efforts by Northam. Northam has repeatedly said he has no such plans.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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