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Virginia’s Gun Rights Battle Spawned the Second Amendment Sanctuary Movement

Second Amendment Sanctuaries Emerge to Counter Gun Grab Legislation

Virginia, where patriot forefathers forever booted a tyrannical British king off soil that would become the United States of America, isn’t the first state to see a bow wave of support for Second Amendment rights, but it certainly has developed one of the highest profiles. The commonwealth’s new Democratic majority in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, burnished by like-minded leadership in the offices of the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, began steamrolling gun control legislation through during the early days of the 2020 General Assembly session.

The legislation largely mirrored that proposed by Governor Ralph Northam immediately following the May 2019 mass shooting in Virginia Beach. There, a disgruntled city employee killed 12 people and wounded four others with a handgun at a municipal building where employees were required to be disarmed.

Red to Blue
Northam asserted blood priority, calling for a July 9 General Assembly special session to entertain legislation he argued was key to deterring gun violence. The Republican-controlled assembly met and quickly dismissed the legislation.

Some analysts viewed the special session as a political setup, forcing fodder votes to energize the anti-gun base and get a massive influx of campaign funding for Democratic Party candidates in the November elections. This money and intense campaigning by Democrats, coupled with Republican lethargy in terms of both running candidates in several uncontested districts and turning out to vote, flipped the House and Senate from red to blue.

As a bevy of bills were pre-filed before the January legislative start, the agenda looked clear: We’re coming after your guns.

Gun rights supporters mobilized. Localities, including counties and independent cities and towns, began holding hearings and votes related to whether or not they should pass resolutions declaring themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries.” These resolutions frequently declare that the local governing body opposes, within limits of the Constitutions of the United States and the state where they reside, any efforts to unconstitutionally restrict Second Amendment Rights. They usually state they will not dedicate any local resources toward enforcing new state laws considered unconstitutional.

Within two months, as maps tracking the Second Amendment Sanctuary march were colored in by locality, it was apparent where conservative values held sway and where liberal bastions were dug in. Ninety-one of the commonwealth’s 95 counties, as well as many of the independent cities and towns, were aligned with the Second Amendment camp by January 31. Even the City of Virginia Beach, scene of 2019 mass shooting, voted for a Second Amendment-supportive resolution.

Jan Morgan, founder of 2A Women, speaks at the Virginia Civil Defense League 2A rally on January 20, 2020, at Capitol Square in Richmond, Virginia.

Citizens Take the Initiative
The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a longtime firearm rights organization, helped lead the charge when it came to organizing the Second Amendment resolutions. Phillip Van Cleave is VCDL’s president. He explained the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement began in the American West, in states such as Washington, Idaho, and Kansas. Most Illinois counties, except for the Chicago area and a few outliers, have now adopted resolutions against gun control.

The Virginia movement had its fledgling beginnings in Carroll County, a large mountainous county in southwest Virginia. Carroll County’s elected officials were working on a resolution even before the Democratic Party takeover of the General Assembly, Van Cleave said. Campbell County quickly followed suit.

“We took a look at this and said, ‘You know, this is something we need to coordinate across the state.’ That’s where we jumped in,” Van Cleave said.

Interest shot through the roof. Prior to the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement, VCDL email alerts went to 29,000 subscribers. That quickly rose to 43,000. The organization’s membership numbers tripled, Van Cleave said.

Using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, the VCDL soon assembled a network that enabled rapid information sharing. A VCDL attorney created a draft resolution, a boilerplate template, of sorts, that counties and cities could use and adapt to forge documents that best articulated their position on these constitutional issues. As each locality held hearings and took votes on the issue, the VCDL helped ensure gun owners turned out. Organization members handed out orange “Guns Save Lives” stickers for supporters to wear at the meetings.

Other social media sites sprang up, such as the Virginia Rising page on Facebook, which grew to more than 100,000 members in a month.

Media reports put the VCDL 2020 Lobby Day crowd at approximately 22,000, though attendees suggest that number might be twice that amount.

Sheriffs Resist
Van Cleave said Virginia’s sheriffs are among the staunchest supporters of the Second Amendment movement. Gun Owners of America is another organization rallying to the pro-firearms cause in Virginia. Sheriffs, the Commonwealth Attorneys, Treasurers, Clerk of the Courts, and Commissioners of Revenue are publicly elected “constitutional officers” in Virginia.

Culpeper County Sheriff Scott H. Jenkins declared he would deputize thousands of county residents in order for them to be able to retain their firearms. Situated just 75 miles from the nation’s capital, Culpeper County houses several key federal and private facilities, many of which require enhanced security.

“Fundamentally,” he wrote, “it is about keeping control where God placed it, and where our founders acknowledged it to reside — in the citizenry. As sheriff, my sworn duty is to uphold and defend our Constitution. I will continue to do so whenever and wherever out-of-control elites threaten it. My actions will always be in service of freedom.”

Grayson County Sheriff Richard A. Vaughan led a team from his office and county to the VCDL Lobby Day in Richmond on January 20, an event that turned into a huge rally for gun rights supporters. Rural Grayson County abuts Carroll County and spans some 446 square miles.

Vaughan said he comes from a firearms-oriented family, noting, “My father has had a Federal Firearms License since 1960. He’s now 82, but still keeps that license. We were raised to shoot and hunt and spend time in the outdoors.”

Rockingham County citizens turn out in force for their local government’s meeting regarding whether or not to adopt Second Amendment Sanctuary status. VCDL photo

Vaughan said, “The way our government is designed, the sheriffs don’t work for the governor or the county board of supervisors. The sheriffs work solely for the citizens of the county. Our priority is to stand up for our citizens and protect their rights, especially in times like these. I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Virginia. If they pass what is proposed, we’re not going to enforce it.”

Grayson County adopted its Second Amendment resolution December 12. At the VCDL rally, Vaughan and his team held a large banner proclaiming support for the Second Amendment.

“If it comes down to confiscation, which I don’t think it will this year – that may be their (Democratic Party legislators) ultimate goal — I would do the same thing as Sheriff Jenkins and swear in law-abiding citizens who own guns, and that would probably be 98 percent of the population here in Grayson County,” Vaughan said.

“We’re a large, mountainous county, and it can sometimes take 30 to 40 minutes for public safety to respond to some portions,” Vaughan continued. “I encourage people to have firearms in their homes for safety, and to know how to use them. People need to be able to step up and take care of themselves.”

The Virginia Citizens Defense League’s annual rally at the Virginia Capital drew tens of thousands this year. In contrast to predictions of violent clashes between gun rights groups, gun control groups, and law enforcement, the huge rally was peaceful.

Sending a Message
In this season of convoluted gun control proposals, Van Cleave is wondering if some of the preemption laws moving toward passage might actually benefit localities that passed Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions.

Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, meaning localities can’t enact anything other than what the state authorizes them. But a couple proposed laws would allow localities to set their own firearms policies, especially when it comes to public buildings, places, and events.

“A county would have a hard time passing any bans after it has already adopted a resolution saying it doesn’t want any more gun control,” Van Cleave said. “That’s an exciting aspect of these sanctuary resolutions that could be very useful if the legislature hands back to localities a horrible hodgepodge of gun laws.”

Van Cleave says the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement is sending a message to Richmond that should be tough to ignore. “Boards of supervisors and city councils across, virtually, the entire state, are stating they don’t want more gun control — no more of this stuff that affects law-abiding citizens,” he said.

A massive crowd turns out for the Chesapeake County, Virginia, Second Amendment Sanctuary meeting. VCDL photo

Individual speakers at local public hearings often share personal stories and experiences. In Prince William County, a northern Virginia County that seems to be vacillating between “blue and red,” the outgoing board of supervisors voted last year to adopt a Second Amendment resolution. The incoming board, with a Democrat majority, at its first meeting tried to slam through a new resolution asking the General Assembly to enact gun control legislation. In a move Van Cleave termed, “dirty pool,” the county gave minimal notice about the proposed new resolution and moved the meeting from 7 p.m. to 2 p.m. on a workday, ostensibly to stifle attendance. It didn’t work. Hundreds of supporters showed up and 124 people spoke.

One speaker, a single mother waited for hours before bringing her four children with her to the podium. A 911 dispatcher for the county, she chastised, “Instead of focusing on gun control, why don’t you focus on mental health, because that’s a much larger issue?” She shared how county law enforcement is often tied up bringing people to mental health facilities outside the county.

Van Cleave said he’s hopeful some state senators who belong to the Democratic Party but represent districts expressing strong support for the Second Amendment Sanctuary concept take heed and help stave off some of the most problematic legislation.

Members of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors wore “Guns Save Lives” stickers during the county’s Second Amendment Sanctuary public hearing and vote. Photo courtesy of Virginia Rising

What’s Next
The Virginia government leadership appears poised to sign and enforce whatever is passed. Attorney General Mark Herring has issued statements declaring his view that the Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions and other similar local government declarations are purely symbolic. A request for Herring to expand on that statement was not answered by his press office.

Van Cleave said further legal action and more might be warranted if many of the proposed gun control bill are signed into law and take effect July 1, 2020.

“We may have to file some injunctions to get these gun control bills into the court and see how they are ruled upon,” he said.

Other options include protests and civil disobedience, which would be the manifestation of the frequently heard, “We will not comply,” chants heard all over the site of the Statehouse rally. “We’ve never pushed civil disobedience, but sometimes it is used when it comes to civil rights, and this is a civil right,” Van Cleave said.

Van Cleave predicts anything requiring turning in firearms will fail, noting Connecticut only had about a 5 percent compliance rate when bans were enacted there. “I’d think Virginia would be a tiny fraction of 1 percent,” he said.

“If you have to bury your guns in the backyard, you’ve lost. That’s the way they want it, where you’re not able to readily access them,” he added.

Women’s rights equal gun rights.

Regional Reaction
Virginia’s neighboring states are closely watching events, apparently recognizing that Second Amendment rights can become very fragile when gun control activists claim political power. Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and more have sanctuary movements underway.

In Kentucky, where a gubernatorial administration with a gun control agenda is now in power, nearly a dozen counties had voted to become Second Amendment sanctuaries by the end of last year.

The West Virginia state legislature and Republican Governor Jim Justice have taken note of the growing discontent in The Old Dominion. West Virginia was carved from Virginia just before the Civil War when its 55 counties decided they wanted to stay loyal to the Union. Now, West Virginia is in solid Republican control, and its leaders are extending an invitation for Virginia’s counties to join them.

Some blast it as a publicity stunt. Many Virginians, especially those unhappy with the current direction, say it’s not a bad idea. One thing that would happen with a fleeing of Virginia’s counties west of Interstate 95 is John Denver’s “Country Roads” song would finally be geographically correct. You may recall that song spoke of West Virginia and its Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River, both of which reside in Virginia — at least for the time being.

Postscript
By press time, a couple of the most problematic anti-firearms bills were defeated during the session, as a handful of Democratic senators who represent moderate to conservative, and often rural, constituencies, sided with their Republican colleagues in committee votes. House Bill 961 was defeated by a 10-5 vote in a senate committee after being steamrolled through the house of delegates. The issue now is directed to a crime commission for study. Other bills supporting universal background checks, handgun purchase limits, locally legislated gun bans, and red flag measures continue to advance.

“What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.”
— Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Smith. November 1787

The Prince William County courthouse was packed with Second Amendment supporters. A new slate of local government officials set its sights on pushing state legislators for new gun controls. VCDL photo


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