RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced Tuesday that the commonwealth will no longer recognize out-of-state concealed handgun permits, part of a national push to circumvent legislatures opposed to tightening gun laws.
Herring (D) said 25 states have lax laws compared with Virginia, where a history of stalking, drug dealing or inpatient mental health treatment can disqualify someone from carrying a concealed handgun. The move is in step with actions governors and attorneys general are taking to address gun violence without going through Republican-controlled legislatures.
“While you are here, you are subject to the commonwealth’s gun laws,” Herring said during a news conference.
But Herring’s office could not say how many people are suspected of crossing into Virginia with concealed weapons to commit crimes, and Republican lawmakers sharply criticized the move, which enforces laws already on the books.
Nevertheless, more than 6.3 million people who could legally carry concealed handguns into Virginia today will lose the privilege when the change takes effect next year. An additional 420,000 Virginians with concealed-carry permits will no longer enjoy reciprocity when they travel to six states.
That includes Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, who said the move will cripple tourism in Virginia.
“I don’t go on vacation in states where I can’t carry my gun,” he said. “Particularly in states like New York or New Jersey, where you really need a gun. I won’t go there.”
He said there’s no reason why Virginia shouldn’t join Arizona and Alaska in doing away with concealed-carry permits altogether. If someone can own a gun legally, he said, they should be able to carry it as they please.
But high-profile mass shootings have sent policymakers searching for ways to strengthen laws in the face of partisan pushback.
In October, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed an executive order to ban firearms in state office buildings. And President Obama is considering using his executive authority to bypass Congress to expand background checks.
“This has been where the gun violence prevention movement is going,” said Chelsea Parsons, vice president of guns and crime policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. “In much the same way President Obama said I’m not going to wait for Congress anymore, the same can be said for leaders at the state level to really use their authority to take strong meaningful steps on this issue.”
Rescinding reciprocity agreements is one of 28 strategies outlined last week in a report co-authored by Parsons on ways states can fight gun crime.
Officials in New Mexico and Florida have revoked reciprocity with a few states, but she said Virginia appears to be the first to undertake a systematic study of agreements. As a result, Herring recommended State Police sever agreements with 25 of the 30 states that recognized Virginia’s concealed-handgun permits, effective Feb. 1.
Republicans and gun rights advocates reacted angrily, accusing Herring of politicizing his office to erode the Second Amendment.
“This decision is both dangerous and shameful,” said Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action. “At a time when people are scared and desperately need the ability to defend themselves, Herring has chosen the path of making self-defense harder.”
Visitors to Virginia can still carry guns openly or obtain a nonresident permit if they meet the standards set forth in the law for residents.
Unsatisfied with that standard, Del. R. Lee Ware Jr. (R-Powhatan) last month filed a bill calling for universal reciprocity, meaning Virginia would have to recognize permits from all states, the way North Carolina and Tennessee already do. Similar bills never made it to McAuliffe’s desk in 2014 and 2015.
“Mark Herring consistently seeks to interpret and apply the law of the commonwealth through the lens of his own personal, political opinions,” Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said. “He is damaging the integrity of the office he holds.”
But Democrats say Herring is applying Virginia concealed-carry standards set by the General Assembly to everyone who sets foot in the state.
“This action is a reflection of the law a conservative Republican legislature has crafted over the years,” Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) said. “And now, when the attorney general actually follows the law, conservative Republicans are squealing about it.”
Herring’s move is in keeping with his embrace of liberal issues as he seeks a second term.
A former state senator, he gained a national profile for refusing to defend Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban and followed up with rulings siding with advocates for abortion rights and immigration reform.
Del. Robert B. Bell III (R-Albemarle), a former state prosecutor and the only declared Republican challenging him in 2017, called it “Washington-style overreach from a nakedly partisan attorney general.”
Virginia law lists 20 conditions that would disqualify a person from being issued a concealed carry handgun permit. They include anyone in the United States illegally, subject to a protection from abuse order, or convicted of two or more misdemeanors.
The states losing reciprocity are: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Agreements will remain with West Virginia, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.
Six states will no longer recognize Virginia’s concealed-carry permits because they require mutual recognition of permits. They are: Florida, Louisiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wyoming.