Chip Lauterbach

Reopen Virginia Protesters Bombard Capitol With Honks

By Chip Lauterbach, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Horns blared and flags waved from vehicle windows as hundreds of Virginians converged Wednesday on Capitol Square to protest restrictions implemented by Gov. Ralph Northam during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Protesters reiterated the message of similar demonstrations taking place in state capitals across the country. The groups hope to influence governors and lawmakers to scale back strict social distancing guidelines and allow businesses and churches to reopen.

“At first we were compliant,” said protester David Decker. “Now it seems like it’s being forced upon us more and more, and we’re absolutely sick of it.”

Many protesters said they disagree that liquor stores are considered an essential business, while many smaller businesses were ordered to close.

“I am against any policy that gives liberty to a corporation over the citizens,” said Jeffery Torres. “Corporations get their interests served while the interests of citizens get ignored.”

A small group of around 20 people -- some brought the entire family -- gathered near the Capitol Square entrance. Few wore masks or observed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s suggested social distancing recommendation of 6 feet of space.

Virginia imposed strict social distancing guidelines in late March. Northam issued a series of executive orders closing nonessential businesses and outlining which businesses could remain open. The stay at home order was later extended until June 10. Restaurants closed dining rooms and shifted to carry-out and delivery only. Recreational and entertainment facilities were shuttered, along with beauty salons, spas, massage parlors and other nonessential establishments. Essential businesses such as grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, pet and feed stores, electronic and hardware retailers and banks can remain open.

The Virginia Department of Health reports approximately 10,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the commonwealth as of Wednesday. Northam and health officials maintain that social distancing is keeping cases from skyrocketing.

Unemployment claims have had a dizzying ascent, with the Virginia Employment Commission reporting on April 16 that 410,762 claims were filed since March 21. 

The event was not without counter protesters, among them Dr. Erich Bruhn, a surgeon from Winchester. Bruhn wore a facemask and carried a sign that read, “You have no right to put us all at risk, go home.”

“I came out here today to tell the other side that the majority of people do not agree with this,” Bruhn said. “We want the economy to open up, but it is just too soon according to most scientists.”

As the interview with Bruhn was wrapping up, a female protester leaned out of her car window and shouted at Bruhn, “How long are we supposed to stay inside?”

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who has announced her intent to run for governor next year, voiced support for the rally. 

“There will be a number of people at this rally, and it has been well publicized,” Chase said during a Facebook livestream. “I think it sends a great message to the governor to reopen Virginia in a smart, wise way.” 

Protesters drove around the Capitol perimeter honking their horns for three hours. The event coincided with the General Assembly reconvening to respond to Northam’s vetoes and amendments. The House of Delegates, which met under a tent on Capitol grounds, was bombarded by the ongoing ruckus. There were no incidents of violence reported, though one Capitol police officer joked he had a headache from all the noise.

Gun Group Asks Northam to Reopen Indoor Ranges as March Gun Sales Increase

By Chip Lauterbach, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia gun owners are calling on Gov. Ralph Northam to remove indoor gun ranges from the list of non-essential businesses closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Meanwhile, this comes as background checks for firearm purchases saw double digit growth from February to March. The Second Amendment advocacy group Virginia Citizens Defense League said that indoor ranges aren’t places of entertainment, rather places where people can practice lifesaving skills. 

The group has rallied its supporters to urge Northam to reconsider the closing of indoor ranges, which are part of two recent executive orders requiring Virginians to stay at home and non-essential businesses to close until June 10.

 Under Northam’s orders gatherings of 10 or more people are prohibited. Indoor gun ranges, along with many other businesses deemed recreational and entertainment facilities, have been required to close. That includes racetracks and historic horse racing facilities, bowling alleys, arcades and movie theaters. Beauty salons, spas, massage parlors and other non-essential establishments that can’t keep people more than 6 feet apart must close. 

Essential businesses such as grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, pet stores, electronic and hardware retailers, and banks can remain open.

“The governor’s view of ranges is that they are for entertainment, or that has been what he has classified them as,” VCDL President Philip Van Cleave said. “Ranges are where people get to practice lifesaving skills, and there are so many new gun owners now that have realized that their safety is in their own hands.”

Gun sales have spiked in some areas around the nation since the COVID-19 outbreak began, according to NPR. In Virginia, gun stores conducted 83,675 background checks in March, a 20% increase over January and February data which were 68,420 and 67,257 respectively, according to FBI firearm background check statistics. Background checks are required for a purchase, but multiple firearms could be purchased for each background check.

Though Northam’s order does not designate firearm and ammunition retailers as essential retail businesses, they can remain open but must abide by the social distancing order and not allow more than 10 customers at a time.

The VCDL has sought legal counsel to push back against Northam’s executive order, deeming indoor gun ranges as non-essential businesses, Van Cleave said. William J. Olson, the organization’s lawyer, sent two letters to Northam. The first asked for the indoor ranges to be removed from the list of non-essential businesses, and the second notified the governor of the Department of Homeland Security guidance to list jobs at gun manufacturers, retailers and U.S. gun ranges as being part of the “essential critical infrastructure workforce.” 

Citing the silence from the governor’s office and the issuing of Executive Order 55, which extended the timeline businesses must remain closed, Van Cleave said the VCDL Board of Directors voted to advance a lawsuit to put a stay on the closure of indoor gun ranges.

“The Board of Directors voted, and we are going to move forward with the lawsuit, but I can’t give any further details at this time,” Van Cleave said Wednesday.

Colonial Shooting Academy in Henrico County closed its indoor shooting ranges to comply with Northam’s order. Peyton Galanti, Colonial Shooting Academy’s marketing department manager, said the decision to close should be left up to businesses and not the governor.

“A lot of people don’t know that indoor gun ranges are under a lot of scrutiny with a lot of different government departments anyways,” Galanti said. 

Galanti explained that indoor ranges like Colonial Shooting Academy have to meet guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to include proper ventilation of indoor ranges due to lead particulates that are released when a gun is fired.

 “The practices that we have on a daily basis are so much stronger than other businesses in terms of our cleaning standards on every level that we have to comply with.”

Van Cleave said that indoor ranges “can easily limit the number of people allowed” by putting an empty lane in between shooters to keep people several feet apart and comply with the governor’s order.

There are approximately 70 shooting ranges in Virginia, according to the National Rifle Association data. Northam’s order doesn’t include outdoor shooting ranges, though a majority of outdoor ranges require paid memberships. 

The VCDL also implored the governor to veto House Bill 264, which would require Virginians to take an in-person class and demonstrate competence with a firearm to obtain a concealed handgun permit, ending the current option to take an online class in order to qualify for such a permit.

“Applicants would be socially isolated, while still getting training. That would be impossible if HB 264 becomes law,” VDCL said in a newsletter.

 If signed by Northam, HB 264 would take effect Jan. 1, 2021.

Amended Assault Firearm Bill Squeaks out of House

By Chip Lauterbach, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A controversial bill banning assault firearms passed the House this week along party lines, and after several amendments whittled away at certain requirements that had caused the loudest opposition. 

The House of Delegates passed HB 961 this week 51-48, which bans the sale of assault firearms and other firearm accessories. Sponsored by Del. Mark H. Levine, D-Alexandria, HB 961 is one of the many gun control efforts being introduced this session and backed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

The bill has been amended several times, and because of this Levine believes that lawmakers have reached the best compromise. Levine also said he wants to counter misinformation being used by pro-gun groups.

“There have been a lot of scare tactics being used,” Levine said. “No one is going to send the police to kick down your door to take away your firearms.”

Amendments to the bill include striking the requirement that current owners of firearms categorized as assault weapons register them with the state police. Also removed was a section that banned suppressors, also known as “silencers.” Originally the bill required that the suppressors be destroyed, moved out of state, or surrendered to law enforcement by January 2021. Now the bill only restricts future sales of assault firearms and suppressors.

The bill in its current form would ban the sale and transfer of new assault rifles, as well as restrict the size of a magazine’s capacity to 12 rounds. An earlier version of the bill would have made possessing any large-capacity firearm magazine a class 6 felony violation, but that penalty was amended and reduced to a class 1 misdemeanor. 

“I have been talking to and listening to the concerns from law abiding citizens,” Levine said. “I have also worked with my colleagues across the aisle; Sen. Amanda Chase was instrumental in helping with these amendments.”

Former Arizona congresswoman and gun control advocate Gabrielle Giffords on Monday urged Virginia lawmakers to “act with courage,” in a statement released the day before the vote.

Statewide opposition has swelled in response to proposed gun control legislation that the Democrats promised after gaining control of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1993.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, is a leading voice against the gun control bills that have been introduced.

“We will be working to kill the bills that crossed over,” Van Cleave said. “Expect VCDL to have a presence in all the subcommittee and committee rooms on gun bills, we will fight hard to stop it in the Senate.”

 Van Cleave and the VCDL held a massive pro-Second Amendment rally on Jan. 20, that drew over 22,000 people to Capitol Square and the surrounding areas. Northam declared a state of emergency before the event, citing concerns over safety and threats of violence.

Van Cleave said his group hasn’t planned another rally but that is something that could change on short notice.

“We are watching the gun bills,” Van Cleave said. “What happens with those bills will have bearing on our next move.” 

With Levine's bill inching closer to becoming law, many gun store owners statewide have reported an uptick in sales from state residents buying anything that would be banned under the bill. 

Eric Tompkins, owner of Paladin Strategic in Mechanicsville, said that the legislative gun control push has helped sales at his gun store, but predicted that his business probably won’t last if HB 961 were signed into law.

“It’s been a double-edged sword, because the past few months since the election have been great,” Tompkins said. “I have had a ton of customers each day, but I know that’ll drop off, and I don’t know whether my business will continue.”

The bill now heads to the Senate. Firearm bills passed earlier by the Senate include SB 70, which requires a universal background check when people sell firearms. SB 69 limits handgun purchases to one a month, while SB 35 allows localities to ban firearms in a public space during a permitted event. SB 240 allows authorities to take away the firearms of someone deemed to be a threat to themselves or others, a measure known as a red flag law. SB 543 makes background checks mandatory at gun shows.

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