Virginia lawmakers vote to ban guns at state Capitol

Gun rights activists rally at a 'Guns Save Lives' rally in Richmond, Va. | Photo: Capital News Service
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers voted Friday to ban firearms at the state Capitol, the first in what's expected to be many contentious gun votes in coming weeks.

Newly empowered Democrats in the General Assembly voted to ban guns at the Capitol and a legislative office building, saying the move was needed to protect public safety.

Public officials have expressed concerns about planned Jan. 20 rallies that are set to draw huge crowds of pro-gun and gun-control advocates. Gun advocates from around Virginia and even out of state have pledged to turn out in force to highlight their resistance to proposed gun-control measures.

"The overall goal here is to protect and ensure the safety of our members and of the people that are in our building coming and going," Democratic Del. Marcus Simon said before the vote.

The ban would apply to lawmakers in addition to the general public.

Republicans have voiced opposition to banning guns at the Capitol and some GOP lawmakers routinely carry guns while at the legislature.

"I feel this egregious, I think it's an overreach." said Del. Terry Austin.

Minority Leader Todd Gilbert issued the following statement in response to the decision on Friday:

“Democrats have long made it clear they wanted to ban firearms in the Capitol and legislative office buildings. That’s not surprising. But for Democrats to intentionally misrepresent that they were introducing the policy at the request of Capitol Police is disgusting and wrong.

“Democrats hold majorities in both chambers and can pass whatever policy they wish. However, today’s action will ensure this policy takes effect without a vote from the vast majority of legislators. Democrats want to ban guns, but not enough to stand up and take responsibility for their own policy. Furthermore, hiding behind the honor of our Capitol Police is cowardly.

"Through their underhanded maneuvers Democrats have already made it clear that they’ll do whatever it takes to implement their agenda, including making major policy changes with no notice and little debate.“

Previously, anyone with a valid concealed handgun permit was allowed to bring a gun into the Capitol. Weapons were banned in certain parts of the building, which was designed by former President Thomas Jefferson, including the Senate gallery and the governor's office on the third floor.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has outlawed guns from other state buildings, continuing a policy started by his predessor, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, in 2015.

The debate on whether to ban guns in the Capitol is part of a larger fight on guns that's set to dominate this year's legislative session.

Democrats have a full majority at the state house for the first time in a generation and have promised significant new gun restrictions, including universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and a red flag law that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from anyone deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.

Gun owners are demanding that local government officials establish sanctuaries for gun rights. More than 100 counties, cities and towns have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and vowed to oppose any new "unconstitutional restrictions" on guns.