Yeatts ruled the state law that allowed Northam to declare a state of emergency gives him broad powers, but it specifically prohibits him from limiting the right to keep and bear arms. The judge found accessing indoor gun ranges falls under that right.
The ruling narrowly applies to this specific business in a single jurisdiction, but legal experts said the case could spur others as businesses begin to chafe under restrictive shutdown orders in Virginia and across the country. Separately, a gym owner is challenging the order in Culpeper County.
“This decision, if not overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court, may also lead to challenges in other states, though it is important to note that Virginia’s emergency powers statute includes fairly broad language protecting gun possession, use, and carrying,” University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger wrote in an email.
Northam issued an order closing schools, restaurants, churches, entertainment venues and other businesses at the end of March, extending through May 8. Northam allowed gun stores and outdoor gun ranges to remain open but classified indoor ranges as nonessential, like music venues and movie theaters.
The office of Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) said Monday that officials are mulling an appeal after the ruling.
“Governor Northam’s efforts to save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19 are necessary and proving to be effective, but unfortunately, the gun lobby believes the ability to shoot a gun indoors during this pandemic is worth risking further spread of the virus and making Virginia communities and families less safe,” Herring said in a statement.
David G. Browne, an attorney for Safeside Tactical, said at a Friday hearing that the range will abide by social distancing guidelines and could operate without putting the public at risk. It will only allow 10 patrons at a time.
Browne said Northam had “crippled” the gun rights of thousands of Virginians by closing indoor gun ranges.
“There is no pandemic exception for the fundamental liberties that the constitution of Virginia safeguards,” Browne said.
Toby J. Heytens, an attorney representing Northam, said the governor was well within his authority to close indoor ranges. He said it was a fallacy to argue that gun rights had been infringed upon because the governor has allowed gun shops and outdoor ranges to remain open. He also pointed out that the order is temporary.
“Their argument is that even during a highly contagious, global pandemic, the governor is powerless to order even a temporary closing of any category of lawful business,” Heytens said. “That argument is deeply flawed.”
Safeside has been joined in its suit by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, Gun Owners of America and the Association of Virginia Gun Ranges. They filed a lawsuit against Northam in mid-April.
Yeatts was swayed by Safeside’s arguments.
“The court cannot agree with such an expansive interpretation of the governor’s authority,” he wrote in his ruling.