Gun rights group takes purpose at Three Virginia legal guidelines
NEWPORT NEWS — A recent US Supreme Court ruling is having reverberations on gun laws across the country — including in Virginia.
One gun rights advocacy group, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said it will push for several state laws to be tossed in light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in a major gun decision.
The group will target Virginia laws passed in 2020 that limit most people from buying more than one handgun a month and allow cities and counties to ban guns in government buildings and grounds. And they want to sink a longstanding law that bans high-capacity magazines in certain jurisdictions.
“A lot of this stuff is going to go down on constitutionality grounds as it should,” said defense league president Philip Van Cleave. “We’re just going to try and put Virginia back to where it should have been over the last 150 years. We’ve lost a lot of our rights.”
The group previously tried to block or overturn some of the same laws it plans to target this year, but legal experts said the high court’s ruling will trigger new challenges to firearms restrictions and give gun rights advocates another bite at the apple.
Van Cleave said the group will lobby to respind the laws in the upcoming General Assembly session. If that doesn’t work, he said, the organization will file lawsuits seeking to scrap the legislation.
The backdrop is the US Supreme Court’s June ruling, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, which found New York State’s concealed carry law unconstitutional.
To carry a firearm outside your home in New York, state law requires people to have “proper cause.” And while people could get gun permits for hunting, they could not typically get such permits for general self-defense.
But in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens have the right to self-defense in public — not just at home. The justices said the New York restriction violated the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, particularly in the light of the rules in place at the time of the founding.
“The government must … justify its regulation by demonstrating that it is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion.
With that ruling, gun rights advocates nationwide have now begun to challenge gun laws on the basis that they don’t comport with the rules in the late 1700s.
“Bruen basically supercharged Second Amendment litigation,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and an expert on gun laws. “It made it likely that just about any gun law on the books was going to be challenged on the basis that there were not similar laws in the 1700s and 1800s.”
The point hit home Thursday, when a federal district judge in Syracuse, NY, issued a temporary restraining order blocking the implementation of a set of new gun laws that New York state lawmakers passed in response to the Bruen decision.
The laws would bar guns in a host of publicly accessible areas, including campgrounds, playgrounds, subways and Times Square. The laws would further require gun permit applicants to show they are of “good moral character” and submit their social media history for review.
Winkler said he would be surprised if the district judge’s ruling fully holds up — particularly that guns could also not be barred in homeless shelters, alcohol-serving establishments, and summer camps.
“Let me repeat — summer camps,” Winkler said.
But, he said, gun laws across the country are indeed going to be seriously challenged going forward.
Shiri Lauren Feldman, a litigation attorney at the Brady pro-gun control organization, finds the Bruen decision concerning — calling it a “threat to gun safety laws” that have strong public support. Still, she believes most current gun laws ultimately will pass constitutional muster.
“It’s definitely true that Bruen kind of supercharged the landscape in terms of gun rights advocates wanting to challenge everything,” she said. “But we don’t think it’s correct that there are no constitutional gun regulations under Bruen.”
The high court said in its ruling that gun laws are constitutional if there’s a “historical analogue” with a past restriction or practice, even if it’s not “a historical twin.”
The Virginia Citizens Defense League plans to challenge the commonwealth’s “one-handgun-a-month” law, which makes it illegal for most people to buy more than one firearm in any 30-day period. That restriction initially went into law in 1993, was respinded in 2012, and was reinstated in a 2020 special legislative session.
“There’s no such thing in history where you’re limited to the number of guns you can have,” said Van Cleave, whose group tried unsuccessfully to block the law’s reinstatement in 2020. “No such thing. So that’s on the list.”
Winkler agreed the law could be difficult to maintain in Virginia under the Bruen decision. “If we didn’t have any gun laws in the 17 and 1800s limiting people to one gun a month, and I’m not aware of any such laws at the time, then it’s likely to be struck down,” he said.
But Feldman maintained that the law is constitutional. The fundamental right the Supreme Court recognized in the Bruen case, she said, is the individual’s right to self-defense. Limiting purchases to one per month doesn’t compromise that, she said.
“One handgun a month is not saying you can’t have a handgun,” she said.
Municipal bans on carrying firearms in public spaces also will be challenged, Van Cleave said.
Under legislation spearheaded by Del. Marcia “Cia” Price, D-Newport News, more than two years ago, localities can restrict guns at public parks and government buildings, community and recreation centers, libraries and city-permitted events.
Much of Northern Virginia — including Fairfax County, Arlington and Alexandria — passed such local ordinances, as did Charlottesville, Petersburg, Richmond, Roanoke and Winchester.
Newport News was the only city in Hampton Roads to pass such an ordinance. The city banned the open carrying of weapons in certain public spaces, though it exempted concealed permit carry holders from the rules.
A Winchester judge recently struck down that city’s ordinance, but Van Cleave said a statewide challenge is in order.
A third target of the gun rights group is a measure that makes it a crime in certain localities to carry in public a loaded semi-automatic firearm with a magazine that can hold more than 20 rounds. That law, passed decades ago, applies specifically to much of Northern Virginia, Richmond, Chesapeake, Newport News, Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
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“That was a law that should never have been in the first place,” Van Cleave said. “But Bruen really clarified a whole lot of things by basically saying, ‘Show me in the early days of America, where this was a common practice.’… And they’re not going to be able to show any of that. ”
Feldman, however, contends the ban on loaded semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines isn’t unconstitutional. “There’s a very strong argument that the purpose of an assault weapon or a high-capacity magazine is not individual self-defense,” she said.
As for the Virginia law allowing localities to restrict guns in government buildings, parks, community centers, and festivals, Feldman defended that, too.
The Bruen decision specifically references government buildings and schools as “sensitive areas” where gun restrictions are allowed — and also mentions polling places, courthouses and legislative assemblies as places guns can be banned.
But Feldman said that while the Bruen decision listed “examples” of places where guns can be barred, the judge who issued Thursday’s ruling in New York interpreted that as a list of the only places such restrictions can be valid.
“I think the Bruen decision kind of creates that possibility — that judges are then going to be much more extreme than the Bruen decision requires them to actually be,” she said.
Peter Dujardin, 757-897-2062, firstname.lastname@example.org