AMELIA COURTHOUSE, Va. — Families, church groups, hunt clubs and neighbors began arriving two hours early, with hundreds spilling out of the little courthouse and down the hill to the street in the chilly night air.
A resistance movement is boiling up in Virginia, where Democrats rode a platform on gun control to historic victories in state elections earlier this month. The uprising is fueled by a deep cultural gulf between rural red areas that had long wielded power in Virginia and the urban and suburban communities that now dominate. Guns are the focus. Behind that, there is a sense that a way of life is being cast aside.
In the past two weeks, county governments from the central Piedmont to the Appalachian Southwest — Charlotte, Campbell, Carroll, Appomattox, Patrick, Dinwiddie, Pittsylvania, Lee and Giles — have approved resolutions that defy Richmond to come take their guns.
It mirrors a trend that began last year in western parts of the United States, where some law enforcement officials vowed to go to jail rather than enforce firearm restrictions, and has spread eastward. In New Mexico, 25 of 33 counties declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries after the state expanded background checks. In Illinois, nearly two-thirds of its counties have done the same.
“My oath of office is to uphold the Constitution of the United States,” Amelia Sheriff Ricky L. Walker said Wednesday night as he waited for the supervisors to meet in this rural county west of Richmond.
If a judge ordered him to seize someone’s guns under a law he viewed as unconstitutional, Walker said, he wouldn’t do it. “That’s what I hang my hat on,” he said.
Some of the unrest is fanned by gun rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association and the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which have used social media and old-fashioned networking to offer boilerplate language for resolutions. But the movement is speaking to the anxieties of many who are unsettled by a state that has shifted from red to blue with shocking speed.
All of the top leaders in the new Democratic-controlled legislature hail from urban or suburban districts in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond. The liberal suburbs outside Washington have the largest delegation in the legislature. And the status of lawmakers from rural red parts of the state has never been lower.
“We need to send a signal to Richmond about Northern Virginia. We don’t want their influence to affect us down here. We’re very different people,” said Clay Scott, a 25-year-old construction project manager whose family has lived in Amelia for generations.
Democrats won control in the elections on the strength of suburban districts where gun violence was a central issue, amplified by a May 31 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that left 12 people dead.
When the General Assembly convenes in January, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has promised to move quickly with Democratic leaders to pass measures such as universal background checks, limits on the types and numbers of firearms that can be purchased and a “red flag” law allowing authorities to seize weapons from someone deemed a threat.
The proposals “were essentially on the ballot in November,” said Brian Moran, Northam’s secretary of public safety. “And the people have spoken through their votes.”
'Gun owners are awake'
The resolutions rocketing around the Virginia countryside all have similar language. Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League said he drafted one for Amelia to consider, along with about 30 other counties — out of 95 total — also taking it up. The matter was added to the Amelia agenda too late for it to be advertised so, by law, the board cannot vote on it until next month. Yet, a crowd of 300 or more turned out after hearing about it through word of mouth.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Van Cleave said of the outpouring of interest. “Everything has exploded right now. Gun owners are awake.”
A similar resolution that passed Monday in Appomattox County pledged to oppose any efforts to “unconstitutionally restrict” the right to bear arms. It said the county would do this “through legal action, the power of the appropriation of public funds, and the right to petition for redress of grievances, and the direction to the law enforcement and judiciary of Appomattox County to not enforce any unconstitutional law.”
The concept is modeled after the “sanctuary city” stance that some localities have taken in response to federal immigration enforcement efforts. In those cases, local law enforcement officials decline to take voluntary steps to help the federal government detain or deport undocumented immigrants.
In theory, a Second Amendment sanctuary would be different. Refusing to carry out a judge’s order to seize weapons from someone would be breaking the law. That could mean jail time. Local agencies receive funding from the state, so even adopting the stance is provocative.
“The notion that law enforcement would not follow the law is appalling,” said Lori Haas, a longtime activist with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “I suspect that many of these counties and their elected officials are posturing in front of certain voters.”
As the sanctuary movement has spread around the country, Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence found that it generally has not led to active resistance. “As a practical matter, these are largely symbolic,” said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel and policy director at Giffords. “We haven’t seen cases where there are folks that are outright defying the law.”
Skaggs said the trend means that authorities in such states as Washington, Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico might be neglecting to use legal tools that could help prevent gun violence and suicide. “While this is largely a political or symbolic gesture, I still think it’s quite troubling,” he said.
At Amelia on Wednesday night, Del. John J. McGuire III (R-Henrico) took the opportunity to show up and announce that he is seeking next year’s GOP nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.).
“I don’t understand what part of ‘shall not infringe’ they don’t understand,” he proclaimed on the courthouse steps as a darkness settled on the throngs who couldn’t get in. “I’ll fight my ass off for you.”
McGuire just won a second term in the House of Delegates in a nearby rural district. But he’ll be in the minority now, with Democrats posting a 55-to-45 advantage in the House and a 21-to-19 edge in the Senate.
Moran, the public safety secretary, didn’t attend the Amelia meeting but has been monitoring the phenomenon. He held town halls on gun control around the state over the summer, discussing solutions ahead of a special legislative session that Northam called in July to take up gun-control bills. Republicans adjourned that session after only 90 minutes, enraging Democrats and handing them a campaign issue in the fall.
“All of his proposals have been vetted in the courts,” Moran said. “The courts have determined that they do not violate the Second Amendment. We feel confident that law-abiding citizens should not be concerned that their rights will be violated.”
But to many residents in Amelia, any kind of gun restriction feels personal. They’ve heard that some proposals would prevent kids under 18 from owning guns and say people who would ban assault weapons don’t understand what they are.
Tony Easter, 60, said he learned about the proposed sanctuary resolution last week and spent four days driving to hunt clubs and friends’ houses around the county to drum up support. “My jaws are hurting from trying to explain this to people,” he said.
Easter grew up hunting in Amelia and has worked as a hunting and fishing guide. He’s active with the NRA and raised his daughters and son “in the woods,” he said.
“I live out here in the country; I’m a rural citizen,” Easter said. “We don’t agree with how Fairfax and Newport News and now even Chesterfield have dominated the state.”
He realizes, he said, that people in those places see guns differently — and that he doesn’t understand their circumstances any more than they understand his. But solving their problems shouldn’t mean changing his way of life, he said.
“What goes on in Fairfax can stay in Fairfax,” Easter said. “We just want to live our life the way we have been raised to live.”
Again and again at Wednesday night’s hearing, residents rose to speak about their first shotgun, about the hours spent stalking game with a father or grandfather.
Hannah Davis said she grew up hunting with her dad and eating what they killed. “The only reason I’m standing here today is because I was fed by wildlife,” she said.
Others said they feel safer in Amelia than in the city, specifically because so many people carry guns and know how to use them. And some warned of the need for protection in case of a government that goes too far.
“I am a proud descendant of a Revolutionary soldier that fought four and a half years to free our land,” said Troy Carter. “Our forefathers bled on this very ground in Virginia for this very reason. The Second Amendment is ours. Our forefathers fought for it. I’m sending this message to Ralph Northam because Virginia is here, and we are awake.”
Only one person out of the dozens who spoke expressed a different point of view. Allison Crews, 44, rose initially to thank residents for electing her to the Piedmont Soil & Water Conservation District, but then mentioned that she is a member of Moms Demand Action and believes in “sensible gun legislation.”
She drew light, polite applause. Afterward, Crews said she grew up in a family of hunters and thinks the urge to block all gun restrictions is misguided. “You can lead with fear or lead with love,” she said. “For me, love always wins.”
The main thing that impressed her about the public hearing, she said, was the number of people who showed up — far beyond anything she had seen in years of attending county meetings.
“I wish we’d see those crowds for things like water quality in the town, or the school system,” she said.
Amelia’s supervisors will vote on a resolution Dec. 18. The meeting has already been moved to the high school auditorium in anticipation of a big turnout.