The city of Charlottesville, Virginia, was powerless to prevent attendees from carrying guns at last year’s Unite the Right rally. But one of the state’s top officials, Attorney General Mark Herring, thinks he can prevent a similar situation from unfolding in the future.
Last week, Herring’s office announced a package of legislation to combat violent extremism. Among the six bills Herring plans to introduce is a measure that would amend the state’s pre-emption statute to let local governments ban guns from permitted events.
“I would like to see Virginia leading the way when it comes to protecting public safety and preventing gun violence,” Herring told The Trace. The bill would “keep communities safer and promote free speech because it doesn’t allow people to intimidate others with firearms,” he added.
The proposals would also prohibit gun sales to people convicted of hate crimes and ban rallies by private militias under threat of criminal penalty.
In August 2017, an estimated 1,000 white nationalists descended on Charlottesville to protest the removal of Confederate memorials and make a show of force, emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump. Armed militias patrolled the streets and one Ku Klux Klan member fired a pistol near a crowd (he was later arrested). A woman named Heather Heyer was killed when a member of an alt-right group drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
Governor Terry McAuliffe said afterward that the scene devolved into violence because the police were wary of confronting armed marchers, and they had no legal way to remove the demonstrators’ weapons. “We saw in Charlottesville that the prevalence of firearms added to the potential for violence,” Herring added.
Virginia is one of 36 states that prevent local officials from prohibiting firearms at protests thanks to a combination of laws governing public-carry and pre-emption statutes binding the hands of mayors and city councils.
Most Local Officials Can’t Ban Guns at Protests
Only one state in recent memory has passed a law designed to allow cities to regulate the presence of firearms at public gatherings. In May 2017, Tennessee amended its pre-emption law to give municipalities the authority to keep guns out of demonstrations. But it came with a strict set of rules, as dictated by the state: Cities are required to set up metal detectors at entrances to events and check every attendee individually for the presence of a weapon. The change was opposed by local authorities like Mayor Madeline Rogero of Knoxville, who argued it would impose huge costs on cities that want to limit guns in public. The change was endorsed by the National Rifle Association.
If Herring’s proposal becomes law in Virginia, scholars say it could set a unique precedent for giving towns and counties full authority to regulate guns on their own terms. “I don’t know of any other examples of legal changes that have weakened preemption laws in this way,” said Joseph Blocher, a Duke University law professor who has written about local authority to regulate guns.
Herring has offered up or supported similar packages of bills three years in a row. Republicans, who have been in charge of both state legislative chambers since 2015, refused to advance the measures. The Virginia General Assembly reconvenes in January.
Herring hopes that this year will be different, and the shifting political landscape will pressure lawmakers to support the bills. All of the seats in both houses of the state legislature are up for grabs in 2019. In the recent federal midterm elections, Democratic candidates in the state unseated three Republican House incumbents. All the victorious Democrats campaigned on gun issues.