RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration recently moved to finalize his ban on firearms in state buildings, and the National Rifle Association dispensed a swift reminder that in Virginia tightening gun restrictions won’t come without a fight.
The NRA accused McAuliffe (D) of breaking the law in blocking citizens from bringing guns into public places such as Division of Motor Vehicles offices and hinted that the battle could play out in the courts.
“The law already states where Virginians can legally carry their firearms and Governor McAuliffe does not have the legal authority to change that on his own,” NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide said last week. “This is nothing more than political grandstanding by an anti-gun governor desperate to deliver a victory to the Michael Bloomberg-funded gun-control movement.”
Millions from the former New York mayor’s gun control group helped fuel a partisan clash over gun control during recent legislative elections. But a looming showdown with gun rights advocates shows the issue is here to stay in a swing state that both parties have called crucial to victory in 2016.
“Virginia is really ground zero in the gun debate today,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor who wrote “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” “It’s a purple state. Terry McAuliffe has staked out a very strong position in terms of gun control.”
No longer do Democrats — in Virginia and across the country — feel compelled to tip toe around gun control for fear of alienating conservative voters. The 2012 shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School reinvigorated gun control advocates, Winkler said.
A year later McAuliffe won the commonwealth with a full-throated call for universal background checks and has not hesitated to repeat the message every time an act of gun violence shatters the calm of a community or college campus.
The murder of two broadcast journalists in Southwest Virginia this summer prompted McAuliffe’s latest call for reform.
Joined by the parents of shooing victims, Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.), Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) and uniformed police, McAuliffe signed an executive order limiting firearms in some public places like never before.
The action gave the state Department of General Services 30 days to write a policy prohibiting the open carry of guns in state office buildings and also to begin the process for adopting regulations blocking the concealed carry of guns in the same places.
“There are many public facilities where people come to perform necessary acts of everyday life where the governor believes we should not wait for a tragedies to occur before we change our policies,” spokesman Brian Coy said.
The release of the policies last week triggered a lengthy review process that could include several rounds of public comment, but the McAuliffe administration will make the final call, leaving little doubt the rules could become permanent.
However, the NRA argues McAuliffe is overreaching his executive powers by making the changes without the General Assembly.
State law already specifies where gun owners can and can’t carry firearms: The capitol and legislators’ office building in Richmond, yes. Courthouses and airport terminals, no.
McAuliffe is on solid legal ground because regulations have the force of law in Virginia, according to Coy.
As evidence, he pointed to a 2011 opinion penned by then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II — a Republican and staunch defender of the right to bear arms — that confirmed universities have the right to ban weapons on some parts of campus. His analysis agrees with a Virginia Supreme Court case involving George Mason University. Cuccinelli declined to comment for this story.
So far the NRA’s argument hasn’t roused House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who controls a large GOP majority known for squaring off against McAuliffe over health care, abortion, gay and transgender rights, and a host of liberal issues.
But the House may still try to block McAuliffe in the upcoming General Assembly session.
“As the Speaker and other House leaders said when the Governor issued his executive order, the House will review the regulations and look at what, if any, legislative action can be taken during the 2016 session,” Howell spokesman Matt Moran said.
Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) called McAuliffe’s logic misguided because shooters bent on committing killing innocent people don’t abide by so-called gun-free zones.
“I don’t know how he thinks he’s making people any safer by disarming law-abiding people,” he said.
Del. Gregory D. Habeeb (R-Salem) called the prohibition par for the course for McAuliffe, whom many Republicans accuse of sacrificing substance to further a social issues agenda.
“This is just him playing politics to try to gin his base up,” he said.
In fact, McAuliffe was one of the first Democrats to deliver an unabashedly liberal message on gun control in a swing state — and on the Fairfax-based NRA’s home turf. Winkler, the law processor, said others have followed a similar path, including Kaine, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and former senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).
Now McAuliffe's good friend Hillary Clinton has staked her presidential campaign on taking a strong stance on gun control.
“For years that’s been a loser for the Democratic Party. Have things changed enough?” Winkler said. “That’s the million dollar question.”