Activists are celebrating Virginia Democratic governor Ralph Northam's decision to lift restrictions on indoor gun ranges in what they argue is a direct response to a recent court victory.
Northam released an executive order on Friday that will allow indoor shooting ranges to operate starting May 15 so long as they follow strict guidelines. Ranges that reopen must operate at half capacity, require face coverings for employees, and adopt enhanced disinfecting for commonly used surfaces and rental equipment. Ranges that flout the rules could face misdemeanor charges.
The announcement came after a state court ruled that Northam lacked the authority to shutter an indoor gun range in Lynchburg. Second Amendment activists said the decision set the stage for potentially unravelling the Democrat's emergency power. Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League which filed suit against the range shutdowns, said the case demonstrated Northam's flawed handling of the crisis, including his classification of the facilities as "entertainment" venues.
"We consider both the reclassification of indoor shooting ranges to no longer be ‘entertainment,' and their reopening this coming Friday to be a victory," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "They should have been classified as ‘essential' from the beginning."
Judge F. Patrick Yeatts of the 24th Judicial Circuit of Virginia ruled Northam's shutdown of indoor ranges violated state gun-rights protections in April. The ruling only applied to the named plaintiff, Lynchburg Range & Training, but activists planned to issue further legal challenges to Northam's order.
Northam's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the firearms industry was "encouraged" by the governor's reversal, saying executive authority "does not supersede God-given and constitutionally protected rights, especially during pandemics."
"Frankly, the lifting of these restrictions was long overdue and the order to shut them down was proven unconstitutional," he said.
Oliva said the shutdown may have had a significant effect on new gun owners who have flooded shops in response to the pandemic. The FBI conducted more than 145,000 gun checks in Virginia over the past two months. He said indoor gun ranges provide many residents with their only opportunity for live-fire training, as many do not live near the public outdoor ranges that were allowed to remain open during the crisis.
"Governor Northam's order did more to damage firearm safety than anything," he said. "The place for these new owners to learn proper storage, safe and responsible firearm handling and marksmanship is with qualified and reputable training experts. Virginia's governor denied that to new gun owners and weakened efforts like that of the National Shooting Sports Foundation and many others to provide true gun safety."
He said the industry has been willing to abide by social distancing as well as disinfecting guidelines. He pointed to the fact that most other states did not shut down ranges as evidence Northam's policy was not needed.
"NSSF has advocated for all firearm retailers and ranges to abide by CDC and state health guidelines to ensure safety for their staff and customers throughout this pandemic," Oliva said. "The fact that ranges in other states have been able to do this all along demonstrates how unnecessary this restriction was."
The Virginia order comes as states across the country debate how to reopen society while trying to avoid a new wave of coronavirus cases. Under phase one of Northam's order, state and local authorities will be monitoring implementation in the next few weeks, which could shape whether restrictions are relaxed or reintroduced. How the state handles reopening could also determine whether legal battles over the shutdown outlast the shutdown itself. Van Cleave is keeping the range lawsuit active to deter officials from interfering in range operations.
"For now, the lawsuit is still on the table," he said. "It has not been withdrawn."
The reopening order remains in effect until June 10.