Virginia governor Ralph Northam (D.) reversed his decision to reopen indoor gun ranges and other businesses throughout the state on Tuesday after pressure from county officials in Northern Virginia.
In a new executive order, Northam said he would keep business closures in effect for localities in the populous northern part of the state. He had ordered restrictions on indoor gun ranges, restaurants, retailers, gyms, salons, and other retailers to be eased throughout the entire state on Friday. Citing requests from local officials in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., he extended shutdowns in the area through May 28.
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The decision could generate a new legal battle over shutdowns and the limits of Northam's emergency powers. The reopening was launched after a state court ruled that Northam lacked the authority to shutter a Lynchburg indoor gun range. Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which participated in the case, said Northam had bungled the reopening process.
"Northam is like a puppet on a string dancing around the room. You don't know where he's gonna go next. It's a mess," he said. "There's a good chance it's going to get challenged."
The National Rifle Association, which operates an indoor range in one of the affected Virginia localities, told the Washington Free Beacon that "all options are on the table" as leaders contemplate legal action against Northam. Two other Northern Virginia ranges said they would remain closed because of the new order, adding that they are consulting with their lawyers as well.
Northam said the reversal was justified because Northern Virginia has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. The region represented 70 percent of positive cases in the state.
"As I have said, it's important that the Commonwealth as a whole can meet key health metrics before moving into Phase One," Northam said in a statement. "The Phase One policies are a floor, not a ceiling. While the data show Virginia as a whole is ready to slowly and deliberately ease some restrictions, it is too soon for Northern Virginia."
Gun-rights activists and industry officials are confident a challenge to the indoor range portion of Northam's order would again be successful.
"The judge ruled in the Lynchburg range case that the governor did not have the authority to supersede the Virginia Constitution or the U.S. Constitution and deny Virginians the ability to exercise their Second Amendment rights," Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told the Free Beacon. "The supremacy of the U.S. Constitution is clear."
Judge F. Patrick Yeatts of the 24th Judicial Circuit of Virginia ruled in April that Northam did not have the authority to shut down Lynchburg Range & Training LLC. He said gun-rights protections in state law limited the reach of the governor's emergency powers. That ruling only applies to the single range but could serve as a blueprint for other legal challenges.
"The governor appears to argue that, when he declares a state of emergency, he can ignore any law that limits his power, even laws designed to limit his power during a state of emergency," Yeatts wrote. "The Court cannot agree with such an expansive interpretation of the Governor's authority."
The governor's reversal will affect ranges and other businesses in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties; the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas, and Manassas Park; and the towns of Dumfries, Herndon, Leesburg, and Vienna.