“This is like the Super Bowl for the Second Amendment right here,” an AR-15 wielding activist told Associated Press reporters right outside the Virginia state Capitol building. This gun-rights activist was just one of the estimated 22,000 protestors in attendance outside the Virginia Capitol this past Martin Luther King Jr. day. Days later, gun-rights activists in Kentucky took it one step further and demonstrated their support for gun-rights by physically wielding firearms inside the state capitol. These protests and others across the nation were sparked by Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam, and the Virginia General Assembly proposing new gun control measures.
The Virginia Senate passed three bills on January 16th that gun-rights activists oppose. The three bills would require background checks on all firearm sales, limit handgun purchases to one day within a 30-day period, and authorize municipalities to ban firearms from public events. The bills now await a vote by the Virginia House of Delegates. The Martin Luther King Jr. Day protest in Richmond was intended as a traditional “Lobby Day” event for the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL). The VCDL hosts an annual Lobby Day rally at the Virginia Capitol, but usually with a much smaller turnout. With the pending gun-control legislation awaiting the Virginia House approval, the VCDL attracted a “Super Bowl” sized crowd of gun-rights activists from all over Virginia and the United States.
The bills stem from Governor Northam’s “Gun Violence Prevention Package” legislative agenda announced this past July. The mass shooting that occurred in Virginia Beach this past summer certainly moved the Governor and the Democratic controlled General Assembly to pass meaningful gun-control measures. The proposed package of eight bills includes the following:
- Background checks
- Assault weapon, high capacity magazine, and bump stock bans
- One handgun purchase limit within a 30-day period
- Requirements that lost or stolen firearms be reported within 24 hours
- Extreme Risk Protective Orders, allowing law enforcement and courts to temporarily separate a person from firearms if the person exhibits dangerous behavior that presents an immediate threat to self or others.
- Prohibiting all individuals subject to final protective orders from possessing firearms
- Enhancing the punishment for allowing access to loaded, unsecured firearm by a child from a Class 3 Misdemeanor to a Class 6 felony.
- Enabling localities to enact firearms ordinances that are stricter than state law. This includes regulating firearms in municipal buildings, libraries and at permitted events.
Before taking to the streets with guns in tow to lobby the Virginia House on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many gun-rights activists had already successfully lobbied local governments across the Commonwealth. Starting this summer in response to Governor Northam’s vocal support of gun-control, the Gun Violence Prevention Package, and pending legislation; many Virginia counties and municipalities began to declare themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries.”
Brief Background on Second Amendment Sanctuaries
The Second Amendment Sanctuary movement began in 2018 in Illinois and spread across the nation as a popular agenda item for many conservative local government officials. A Vice-Chairman on the Effingham County (Illinois) Board stated the word ‘sanctuary’ was a swipe at the sanctuary cities movement. The idea being that if there can be sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants, there should be sanctuary cities for 2nd Amendment rights.
A Second Amendment Sanctuary is a city, town, county, or other municipality that has passed a resolution that states that the 2nd Amendment will not be infringed upon by the local government. County Boards of Commissioners appear to be the most common local government body to pass such resolutions. The resolutions vary from county to county, but generally include a two-part declaration. First, the resolutions declare local officials intent to ‘defend’ and support the 2ndAmendment right to bear arms. Second, the resolutions declare that the local government will oppose any efforts to restrict rights under the 2nd Amendment.
A recent resolution adopted by the Davidson County (North Carolina) Board Commissioners this January serves as an example:
the Davidson County Board of Commissioners wishes to express its deep commitment to protecting Davidson County Citizens’ Second Amendment Rights . . . and wishes to express opposition to any law, regulation, or other act that would infringe on the Second Amendment Rights of Davidson County Citizens.
The declaration of intent by a local government to protect and defend a Constitutional right does not seem that odd. After all, upholding the Constitution and defending citizen’s rights is the foundation of American government. However, many of these resolutions, including the most recent one enacted in North Carolina by the Davidson County Board of Commissioners declares opposition to state and federal government. The Davidson County resolution opposes the state and federal government on 2nd Amendment issues stating:
County Government will not authorize or appropriate government funds, resources, employees, agencies, contractors, buildings, or offices for the purpose of enforcing or assisting in the enforcement of any element of such acts, laws, orders, mandates, rules, or regulations that infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms as described in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The Davidson County resolution and others like it include language that the local government will utilize “any legal means necessary” and will pursue “legal action” in defense of 2nd Amendment rights.
Do Second Amendment Sanctuary Resolutions have any legal effect?
Resolutions are an official means for communicating a government’s intent regarding specific issues. Although these local resolutions may look and sound like laws, they do not hold the same weight as duly enacted law. While State legislatures and Congress have the authority and ability to pass laws, local governments do not have the same authority.
The Attorney General of Virginia, Mark Herring, issued an official advisory opinion on the legality of Second Amendment Sanctuary Resolutions on December 20, 2019. The opinion stated that “constitutional, statutory, and common law doctrines establish that these resolutions neither have the force of law nor authorize localities or local constitutional officials to refuse to follow or decline to enforce gun violence prevention measures enacted” by the state legislature.
Furthermore, as Attorney General Herring points out, the general language in the resolutions “do not direct or require any specific result, and any suggestion of potential future action is entirely speculative.” By their own language the resolutions are more symbolic than legally significant.
Amidst this movement it is crucial to keep in mind that neither local governments nor constitutional officers (county commissioners and law enforcement officers) have the authority to declare state statutes unconstitutional. It has long been established that the indisputable and clear function of the courts, both federal and state, is to declare statutes unconstitutional.