Virginia has been trending blue for a long time, as both the D.C. suburbs of “NoVa” and the state’s minority population have grown. Add in the suburb-alienating Trumpist drift of the GOP — both nationally and in the southern part of the state — and sprinkle on the judicial demise of some heavy gerrymandering, and you wind up with Democrats in control of the entire state government. Less than a year after a wave of Democratic scandals that was so humiliating it has its own Wikipedia page, in fact.
This could mean big changes for the state that’s home to both the headquarters of the National Rifle Association and the “Nation’s Gun Show.” Already a number of far-reaching gun bills have been announced for January’s legislative session, and already red localities are threatening to defy them.
The split in the state senate is narrow, just 21–19, so moderate Democrats will likely be able to tame the worst aspects of what their party is offering. But some of the initial proposals are truly awful, placing severe and unnecessary burdens on lawful gun owners. They almost seem intentionally designed to whip up opposition in the state’s rural and conservative areas.
A bill known as HB 2, for example, requires background checks on private gun sales. (Current law already requires checks on sales by licensed gun dealers.) This is a fairly moderate idea, and one I have some sympathy for myself, but it must be executed meticulously. The drafters of a universal-background-check law must be careful not to make criminals of people who loan guns to each other during hunting trips but hunt in different parts of the woods, for example.
HB 2 ignores such complexities. It does recognize the need for exceptions in certain limited circumstances, such as a “bona fide gift” to a member of one’s immediate family, a temporary transfer where the gun’s owner is continuously present to supervise the borrower, or a transfer to someone who needs the gun imminently for self-defense. But beyond that, forget it. As the NRA notes, “even lending a brother your rifle for a deer hunt or letting your daughter borrow a handgun for self-defense could land otherwise law-abiding Virginians with a felony conviction and up to 5 years in jail. Additionally, the recipient could face up to a full year of incarceration.”
We see the same issue with SB 16, a bill to ban “assault firearms” and to cap magazine size at ten rounds. (Though the anti-gun crowd likes to call such magazines “high-capacity,” countless modern semiautomatic handguns are sold standard with magazines that hold, say, 15 or 17 rounds.) This is not a measure I have any sympathy for, but it does tend to poll well among the public . . . at least so long as it doesn’t require current owners of these weapons to turn in products they purchased perfectly legally.
Which of course the bill would do. There’s no grandfather clause. It would make it illegal to “possess” the banned items, including some entirely normal handguns and hunting guns. Once again, we have a measure that goes beyond public opinion and indeed might need to be dialed back before Virginia Democrats can unite behind it. The one thing it achieves is to insult the rights and beliefs of gun owners.
And gun owners are reacting about how you’d expect. Thanks to a push from the Virginia Citizens Defense League, 46 counties, towns, and cities have already passed resolutions to become “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” vowing that they will not help to enforce any law that, in their view, violates the Second Amendment. These areas cover roughly 15 percent of the state population by my quick tally, and the effort continues. Even in my home of Fairfax County, whose board of supervisors is overwhelmingly Democratic, gun-rights supporters showed up at a recent meeting in droves to argue for a measure like this, activism that will have little effect but must have made anti-gun board members miserable, which I suppose is an end in itself.
The legal force of these resolutions is limited, thanks to local governments’ status in relation to the states where they’re located. The Constitution protects states and localities from certain forms of federal meddling — including the “commandeering” of law-enforcement efforts — but it’s silent on the rights of localities against states. Local governments exist only because states choose to recognize them, they possess only the powers states choose to grant them, and a state government can override any local law it wants. Counties can declare themselves sanctuaries and fire employees who don’t go along, but only until the state decides to put a stop to it.
As a practical matter, however, this wave of defiance might be powerful. The strong turnout for these resolutions could serve as a warning to the Virginia Democrats’ moderates as they weigh these bills. And should that fail, it’s not clear the state will have the will to fully ensure local compliance. So if these extreme anti-gun bills pass, the Democrats might have to make peace with the new laws’ being lightly enforced in some places, or try to step up the state’s own enforcement in those places against the wishes of the local population.
A lack of local enforcement, by the way, can seriously undermine the kinds of gun control the Democrats are considering. One recent study showed that universal-background-check laws didn’t even increase the number of background checks conducted in Washington and Colorado (though results were better in Delaware); one contributor was the fact that some local sheriffs had announced outright that they had no intention of enforcing the law. If gun sellers don’t want to conduct background checks and no one is making any attempt to monitor sales, the law is toothless. Bans on “assault weapons” and limits on magazine size have a similar problem: Such laws are routinely defied even in blue states, and local officials’ open refusal to enforce them can only make that problem worse.
This is not a good position for Virginia’s Right to find itself in — plotting county-by-county to resist impending state laws — but maybe it’s time for conservatives here to experience the fight-or-flight reflex. I moved to this state in 2012, and we’ll just say I have never been particularly impressed by the local Republicans. If getting drubbed in November wasn’t enough to force these people to get their act together, maybe an assault on the Second Amendment coupled with an energetic grassroots backlash will be.