By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 10:20 PM
RICHMOND - Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has quietly lifted the ban on people carrying firearms openly in Virginia's state parks, reversing a policy put in place by his predecessor.
Gun-control advocates decried the move, saying the decision could hurt the state's tourism business, while gun-rights advocates said the directive was overdue. It also was not unexpected, as McDonnell (R) had opined as attorney general three years ago that the Department of Conservation and Recreation's guns-in-parks ban exceeded its authority when it enacted the rule under then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).
In a letter dated Jan. 14, McDonnell directed the Department of Conservation and Recreation to cease enforcing regulations prohibiting people from openly carrying firearms in state parks. The governor, referring to an opinion he had formulated as attorney general in September 2008 at the request of then-Sen. Kenneth Cuccinelli (R), reiterated his view that the agency lacked the legal authority to enforce the ban.
"These regulations, once finally approved, would simply allow law-abiding Virginians who legally own a firearm to exercise the same rights in a Virginia state forest or state park that they already possess while elsewhere in the commonwealth," said J. Tucker Martin, a spokesman for the governor.
The governor has also given initial approval to a proposed regulatory change allowing the carrying of weapons, openly or concealed, in state forests. Those proposed regulations are in the public comment stage, Martin said.
Fireworks are still prohibited in state parks, and alcohol is banned except in "private areas" such as cabins or campsites, according to the agency's Web site. There was no mention of guns on the site. In 2003, the agency amended its regulations on firearms to permit people with concealed-handgun permits to have a concealed weapon on park property.
The directive comes during the General Assembly's annual ritual of considering dozens of bills either seeking to strengthen or loosen firearms restrictions. Last year, lawmakers greeted the new Republican governor with 60 bills dealing with weapons, two-thirds of which were pushed by the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
This year, the number of bills is smaller, with the VCDL pushing about 30 bills, including measures that would require Virginia to recognize concealed-weapons permits issued by other states, shield Virginia-made firearms from federal regulation and prohibit state agencies, such as the parks department, from adopting regulations on firearms unless expressly authorized by law.
Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, revived efforts to require all buyers at gun shows to undergo a background check before purchasing a firearm. Under current law, only federally licensed firearms dealers must conduct such background checks.
As in years past, lawmakers predicted that many gun-rights measures endorsed by the Republican-led House would die in the Democratic-led Senate, and vice-versa.
On Wednesday, for example, a Senate committee killed SB876, a bill sponsored by Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-Westmoreland) that would have enshrined the so-called "castle doctrine" in law that would allow a person to use deadly force in self-defense at home without fear of being sued. A similar measure,HB1573, filed by William H. Cleaveland (R-Roanoke), was endorsed by a House subcommittee.
Others said election-year considerations could be driving the Republican leadership to douse the chances of more sweeping gun-rights proposals because it could force uncomfortable votes on moderate Republicans from districts including several in Northern Virginia.
On Monday, for example, a House subcommittee recommended no action on HB1731, a bill sponsored by Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson) that would have shielded from federal regulations any firearms and ammunition made and kept in Virginia.
Gun-control advocates said the governor's new directive allowing open carry in parks came as a surprise, and they criticized the new policy and the way McDonnell carried it out.
"I think he tried to sneak it by," said Andy Goddard, who heads the Virginia Center for Public Safety. His son, Colin Goddard, survived gunshot wounds during the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.
"I'm not surprised at what Governor McDonnell's done, because he's in the back pocket of the NRA," said Lori Haas, whose daughter also survived the attack. "But I think to do this without any sort of public knowledge or public comment is contrary to some of his campaign statements on transparency."
She also predicted that the move will have a chilling effect on the tourism business.
"Can you imagine the family with young children who look over to the campsite next-door where the person is openly carrying an AR-15?" she said.
But Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, praised McDonnell's directive.
"Basically, the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms doesn't end at the borders of state parks," Van Cleave said. "If you get in trouble there, there's no cops to call."
Van Cleave also dismissed concerns that the new policy would affect tourism.
"That's laughable on its face," he said. "In fact, a lot of gun owners would be more happy to come to Virginia."
Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) shrugged off the directive as a sign of the times.
"I'm not surprised - I'm only surprised it took him a whole year," Saslaw said, noting that President Obama has backed off gun control as an issue. Last year, the federal government lifted restrictions on carrying firearms in national parks.
"Do I agree? No," Saslaw said. "But it's hard to climb all over him when Obama's done the same thing at the federal level."
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.