Attorney General Mark R. Herring’s plan to tighten Virginia’s restrictions on out-of-state concealed handgun permits set off an immediate backlash Tuesday among Republicans and gun rights advocates.
Starting Feb. 1, Virginia won’t recognize permits from 25 states, including neighboring North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. Those states have weaker laws that don’t meet Virginia’s standards, Herring said Tuesday when he announced the results of an audit of other states conducted by Virginia State Police.
A bill requiring Virginia to recognize permits from other states — which would effectively reverse Herring’s ruling — was filed in November in advance of next month’s General Assembly session.
Leaders of the House of Delegates, in which Republicans hold two-thirds of the seats, criticized what they called Herring’s “unilateral actions” on concealed carry permits and questioned his motivations.
“Despite promising to take politics out of the Attorney General’s Office, Mark Herring consistently seeks to interpret and apply the law of the commonwealth through the lens of his own personal, political opinions,” said Speaker of the House William J. Howell, R-Stafford. “He is damaging the integrity of the office he holds.”
Herring described the move as a “common-sense step” to make Virginians and law enforcement officers safer by ensuring that the state’s concealed carry laws are applied evenly to everyone.
“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,” Herring said.
In six of the 25 states, Virginia permits will no longer be recognized because their laws require mutual acceptance of permits. Four of the 25 states already include Virginia among states whose permits aren’t accepted.
Del. R. Lee Ware Jr., R-Powhatan, filed a bill in advance of the General Assembly session next month that would require Virginia to accept concealed handgun permits issued by other states. Ware said he wouldn’t speak specifically about Herring’s actions until he’s had time to read the full report.
“I have not seen the basis for his audit, but he does not list any problems or violations in the notice he’s put out,” Ware said. “As a general rule, concealed carry permittees are among the most law-abiding of citizens.”
A similar bill Ware sponsored in the previous regular session died in the Senate Finance Committee after financial objections from the state police. Ware said he plans to address those concerns next month, but would not discuss details.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, has pushed unsuccessfully for gun-control measures such as universal background checks, so he has taken some gun measures through executive action.
A new rule banning concealed guns in most state offices took effect in early December as an emergency regulation.
The gun ban, included in an Oct. 15 executive order by McAuliffe, has exemptions for law enforcement, security and military personnel. The order immediately banned openly carried guns in executive offices. The ban on concealed weapons required a longer regulatory process.
“Today’s action is further proof that Democrats in Virginia have declared war on the Second Amendment,” said John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “Mark Herring’s unilateral action sets the stage for other states to end their recognition of Virginia permits, and make it much harder for law-abiding citizens to exercise their constitutional rights.”
“But of course, that’s what Democrats like Mark Herring, Terry McAuliffe, and Hillary Clinton want.”
Republicans retained their 21-19 majority in the Virginia Senate Nov. 3. Everytown for Gun Safety, the Michael Bloomberg-backed gun control group, spent more than $2 million on ad buys in two key races. The group backed one Democrat, Jeremy McPike, who won in Northern Virginia and another, Daniel A. Gecker, who lost in the Richmond area.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights group, blasted the finding as nothing more than political posturing and payback to Bloomberg.
Van Cleave said he expects to challenge the merits of the decision in court once people have time to read the full audit. He said the action doesn’t make anyone safer and questioned whether any actual cases of permit holders committing crimes had prompted the change.
“The attorney general is playing with the lives of people for political purposes. It’s actually disgusting,” Van Cleave said. “It’s picking on people that don’t commit crimes. They’re pounding on good people and coddling the criminals is the way I look at this.”
The gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety praised Herring’s decision.
“When states recognize carry permits from other states with weaker laws, they put themselves at the mercy of those weaker laws,” John Feinblatt, the group’s president, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
“I applaud Attorney General Herring for protecting Virginians and demanding that any state that wishes to have their permit recognized in Virginia has to have the same strong standards for concealed carry as the commonwealth.”
The Herring initiative is likely to be an issue as he seeks re-election as attorney general in 2017.