Virginia Supreme Court Leaves Governor's Capitol Gun Ban in Place

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam / Getty Images
January 18, 2020

The Virginia Supreme Court on Friday evening declined to hear a challenge to Democratic governor Ralph Northam's temporary ban of gun-carry during a pro-gun-rights rally on Monday, leaving the ban in effect.

The High Court refused a request by gun-rights groups to overturn a lower court ruling upholding the governor's emergency order. Northam had banned guns on the Capitol grounds from Friday night through Tuesday, meaning those planning to gather for Monday's rally will not, unlike previous years, be allowed to carry firearms. The restriction may impact how many people attend the event and divert those who prefer not to be disarmed to other areas around Richmond.

Organizers of the gun-rights rally, which is in opposition to a package of gun-control bills being considered by the Democrat-controlled legislature, are asking attendees not to flout the ban on Monday.

"We ask everyone to follow the temporary Capitol grounds rules," the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) told supporters in an email on Saturday. "There is NO need for an act of civil disobedience to achieve standing for a court fight. We already have standing."

VCDL called the Supreme Court's decision not to review the case "unfortunate" and insisted the governor's emergency order is still "illegal." It said, however, that the right course forward was to comply on Monday and continue to fight the case in court.

"We still will have our day in court to fully debate the governor's unconstitutional overreach in just a few short weeks," the group told supporters.

Northam said he was "grateful" the temporary gun ban would stay in effect for Monday. While hundreds of pro-gun events have been carried out peacefully over the past several months across the state of Virginia with tens of thousands attending, Northam argued the existence of threats from groups unaffiliated with the organizers of Monday's rally were enough to justify the gun ban.

"I am confident that the majority of those attending Monday’s rally will be peaceful," he said in a statement. "I have full respect for their fundamental American right to voice their opinions. But over the past few days, the news has confirmed that this rally is attracting extreme individuals and groups—including national hate, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist groups—who are threatening violence and looking to advance a violent agenda."

The legal dispute over the ban centered on language in Virginia's emergency powers law which prohibits the governor from using those powers to ban gun-carry except in limited circumstances. Plaintiffs argued the governor's gun ban violates state law, but circuit court judge Joi Taylor upheld the ban on Thursday.

"Because individuals have limited right to bear arms," she wrote in the ruling, "the Plaintiffs in this case will not suffer an irreparable harm sufficient to justify the injunction sought by the Plaintiffs."

The Virginia Supreme Court did not weigh in on the merits of the case but instead refused to hear it because of a lack of information.

"Under the circumstances, we are unable to discern whether the circuit court abused its discretion," the Virginia Supreme Court said in its ruling. "The circuit court decided this case in less than one day, and, accordingly, the record before the Court is scant, there is no transcript or written statement of facts detailing the events of the hearing, and we are unaware of any evidence that was taken."

VCDL and fellow plaintiff Gun Owners of America plan to continue the case after Monday in hopes of preventing similar emergency gun bans in the future. The gun-rights groups predicted the legal setback will embolden more supporters to show up for the rally.

"Ironically, this outcome will only further embolden Second Amendment supporters to be even louder for their rights," Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America, said in a statement. "Gun owners in the Commonwealth will continue to challenge Gov. Northam’s unconstitutional gun control measures at every turn."