The Virginia attorney general announced on Tuesday that he would unilaterally eliminate gun carry reciprocity agreements with 25 other states on Feb. 1, a move that will affect millions of Americans.
Attorney General Mark R. Herring, a Democrat, released a statement with the details of the action he is taking.
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"To ensure Virginia's law and safety standards for concealed handgun permits are applied evenly, consistently, and fairly, I have recommended the State Police terminate the reciprocity agreements with 25 states whose laws are not adequate to prevent issuance of a concealed handgun permit to individuals that Virginia would disqualify," Herring said. "The State Police has accepted that recommendation and has begun sending letters to the 25 states informing them that as of February 1, their permits will no longer be recognized by Virginia."
He called the move a "commonsense step" and said it would make Virginia police safer. "To me, this is a commonsense step that can help make Virginians and our law enforcement officers safer by ensuring that our concealed carry laws and safety standards apply to everyone in Virginia, whether they are a resident or a visitor," he said. "Strong, consistent enforcement of Virginia's laws and safety standards can prevent disqualified people who may be dangerous or irresponsible from utilizing a concealed handgun permit, and it's what the law requires."
The attorney general did not provide examples of those with out of state gun carry permits who have committed gun crimes in the Commonwealth.
Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller said the department doesn't have any statistics on such crimes.
"That's not something we readily track," she said.
Herring said a large number of states with which Virginia has reciprocity agreements do not employ the same standards for issuing permits as Virginia does.
He said his office determined 25 of the 30 reciprocity agreements would need to be vacated. Those states are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Once Herring's order goes into effect on Feb. 1, 2016, Virginians will not be able to carry in many of those states and gun carry permit holders from those states will not be able to carry in Virginia.
The only state permits Virginia will continue to honor are those from West Virginia, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah.
Open carry without a permit by anyone who can legally possess a firearm will continue to be legal for both residents and non-residents.
Some states whose permits will no longer be honored in Virginia may still honor Virginia permits depending on their state gun laws. The attorney general identified Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee as states which would continue to recognize Virginia's permit.
Florida, Louisiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming will no longer honor Virginia's permits due to the attorney general's actions.
The Virginia State Police said the change was a normal part of a continual process of review that involves both the agency and the attorney general.
"This is a consistent process for the State Police and the list consistently changes," spokeswoman Geller said, "because, obviously, the laws change. … So we're consistently reviewing [the agreements] with states all across the nation. We've been doing it ever since the reciprocity agreements came into effect back in the mid to late 90s."
Geller could not remember the last time a state reciprocity agreement was canceled. "I'd have to check with our legal office to see if we've got that on file," Geller said. "I'm not sure."
Geller said the State Police had no specific plan beyond information posted on their website and media reports to inform Virginia residents or the residents of the 25 states in question about the change.
When asked again about the scale of the change to reciprocity agreements, Geller said, "It's significant."
Virginia Republicans and gun rights activists were caught off guard by the holiday announcement and are still deciding what to do in response. They expressed skepticism that the attorney general's move is legally permissible and harshly criticized the move.
"I had no hint," said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. "No hint anywhere that there was a review anywhere or that anything was going to change."
"We're going to want to look at the criteria that they used [to review the agreements] and I bet you we find criteria in there that doesn't apply."
"We were surprised to see that," Bill Howell (R.), Virginia speaker of the house, told the Washington Free Beacon. "I find it interesting that the attorney general said he was going to take the politics out of the attorney generals when he's really injected them in an even greater way than we've seen in recent time."
The speaker went on to say he is not convinced the attorney general has the power to void all of the 25 reciprocity agreements he is targeting. "We're doing research on this right now but there's probably about half the states, maybe more than that, we have written agreements with and I don't think the attorney general or anybody can just go in and abdicate a written agreement," Howell said. "So the number of states it impacts may be a lot less than what we're seeing right now."
Howell also indicated that the Republican majorities in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate are looking at legislative action to reverse Herring's order. He said that any legislative option would likely have to overcome or outmaneuver a veto by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D.), who recently enacted a number of gun control measures through executive action.
Both Herring and McAuliffe's moves came after their party failed to recapture a majority in the Virginia House and Senate despite millions of dollars in donations from gun control activists.
Gun rights activists warned that the attorney general's move puts millions of Americans in greater danger.
"Some woman with a child who's under a death threat by an ex-spouse from Tennessee who comes into Virginia is effectively disarmed so that some politician can look like he's done something," Van Cleave said.
The National Rifle Association called the attorney general's action "dangerous and shameful" in a statement.
"Plain and simple, this is putting politics above public safety," said Chris Cox, head of the 5 million member gun rights organization's lobbying arm.