Virginia adopted some of the strictest gun regulations in the country on Wednesday after a judge rejected a bid to block a one-handgun-a-month limit from taking effect.
Virginia Democrats made gun control a top priority after taking control of both the state legislature and governor's mansion in 2019 and quickly pushed through one of the most restrictive packages in the country. Residents in the commonwealth are now subject to universal background checks, red flag laws, and a monthly limit on how many handguns they can purchase.
Gun-rights activists had attempted to block the July 1 implementation date of those measures in separate suits. A state judge rejected a request to temporarily block the one-gun-a-month law on Thursday. The same group of gun-rights activists requested a stay in a new suit against the universal background check law, but were unable to secure a hearing before the law took effect.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), which is involved in both current lawsuits and considering two more, expects the new laws to anger Virginians. The new laws are at odds with a traditional pro-gun culture in the state and the quick implementation of strict gun-control measures could rankle residents enough to drive them to the polls.
"People are not going to be happy with this," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "They're not going to forget about what they've [Democrats] done, so it'll be curious to see the elections in 2021 in Virginia. It might be curious to see the elections in 2020."
Only Democratic strongholds Maryland, California, and New Jersey set monthly limits on handgun purchases before Virginia's law went into effect. Virginia Democrats captured both houses of the legislature in November 2019 with major financial backing from billionaire gun-control activist Michael Bloomberg. Their push to pass a package of gun-control bills supported by Governor Ralph Northam (D.) produced a major grassroots backlash. More than 90 of Virginia's 95 counties declared themselves "Second Amendment Sanctuaries" and pledged not to enforce gun-control measures they viewed as unconstitutional. The opposition movement culminated in January with a massive VCDL-sponsored rally in the capital.
After the public outcry, state Democrats stopped short of passing laws to confiscate weapons and ban the popular AR-15 rifle. The new restrictions, however, could still trigger backlash from voters. Van Cleave said VCDL experienced unprecedented growth in the early months of 2020 as the gun-control debate accelerated, but the true surge came during the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest that followed.
"We're seeing a lot of the new gun owners. Gun owners are really awake and on top of all that, with this COVID and all these riots going on, new gun owners are coming in droves," he said. "That may also affect a lot of things when more and more people who have been added and all that much for gun rights suddenly realized that there is something to it and they're now gun owners with skin in the game."
Northam did not respond to a request for comment.
Gun-rights activists are hopeful that they will not have to wait for Election Day to reverse the state's new gun-control regime. Despite the early legal setbacks, the plaintiffs are prepared to take their battle to the Supreme Court.
"We think we have a strong case," Van Cleave said. "We don't ration any other rights."
Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America—which has joined VCDL in its most recent suits—said the background check law is too burdensome. He said the requirement that Virginians first transfer their guns through a licensed dealer whenever they sell a used gun to another person in the state is too onerous to stand.
"This law forces honest citizens to prove their innocence to the government in order to acquire a firearm," he said in a statement. "By making the ability to acquire a firearm so burdensome, Universal Background Checks flip a right that ‘shall not be infringed’ on its head."
Van Cleave said VCDL is also planning a suit against the red flag law, which allows courts to temporarily strip Virginians of their guns if judges determine the owner is a threat to themselves or others; the gun owner is not present at such a hearing. The group must wait until a plaintiff steps forward to challenge the law. He said they are also considering filing a case against the new law allowing cities and towns to create their own gun-free zone on government property—something the city of Alexandria, Va., has now implemented.
A state court is scheduled to hear arguments about the universal background law on Friday.