After facing resistance to new gun-control measures in the General Assembly, Gov. Terry McAuliffe used his executive authority Thursday to bolster prosecutions of illegal gun sales and ban firearms in most state offices.
In an executive order signed during a morning news conference in Richmond, McAuliffe established a task force that will direct state resources toward gun prosecutions, ordered the Virginia State Police to create a tip line to let people collect rewards for reporting gun violations and enacted an immediate ban on openly carried guns in executive branch offices.
“Gun crimes are not acts of God,” McAuliffe said. “But for too long, certain politicians and lobbyists have told us that gun violence in America is some sort of natural phenomenon, something we cannot do anything about. Today, we are gathered to recognize that we are not helpless to gun violence, that we can prevent it.”
Though much of the order focused on strengthening enforcement of existing law, McAuliffe’s move to ban guns in state buildings drew a swift rebuke from Republican lawmakers.
In a statement, House Deputy Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, called the ban “shortsighted.”
“As we have seen again and again, such policies leave law-abiding citizens vulnerable to acts of senseless violence rather than protecting people from such tragedies,” Gilbert said. “We will review this policy during the 2016 legislative session and take the appropriate action to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens.”
The ban includes offices of state agencies in Richmond as well as buildings throughout the state such as Department of Motor Vehicles facilities and Virginia Employment Commission centers.
The new restriction doesn’t apply to the Capitol building or General Assembly offices, where authority rests with the legislature. Guns already are not allowed in court buildings.
The ban applies immediately to guns carried openly. Banning concealed weapons requires a longer regulatory process, but McAuliffe said he expects the Department of General Services to propose regulations aimed at concealed carrying within 30 days.
The ban doesn’t apply to law enforcement, security or military personnel carrying firearms as part of their duties.
The new task force will be led by Secretary of Public Safety Brian J. Moran and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, whom McAuliffe also authorized to prosecute gun cases. Firearm offenses are not among the criminal matters tasked to the attorney general under state law, but the governor is allowed to request a special emphasis on certain crimes.
The parents of Alison Parker, a Roanoke-area TV journalist who was shot and killed during a live report in August, stood by the governor during the signing.
McAuliffe has pushed for gun-control legislation — including measures to require background checks for firearm sales at gun shows and remove guns from domestic violence situations — but he has been unable to get the initiatives through the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
The announcement by the governor, who said he intends to press for the legislation again in the upcoming session, comes weeks before the Nov. 3 General Assembly elections, which will decide party control of the state Senate.
The Democratic Party of Virginia sent out an appeal shortly after the event asking supporters to sign a form thanking the governor, saying “the NRA and Republicans will stop at nothing to attack this action and tear it down.”
“For years, we have consistently said the best way to keep Virginians safe is to enforce existing law,” said House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford. “We will monitor the work of the task force.”
Howell said the House will continue to focus on mental and behavioral health care as a means of preventing violence.
House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said it is “curious” that McAuliffe and Herring are eager to enforce gun laws “when they have been so eager to ignore other laws in the past.”
“We are confident that our local law enforcement officers and commonwealth’s attorneys are enforcing all of Virginia’s laws to their full extent,” Cox said. “The governor and attorney general should take extra care before interfering with their work.”
Herring said the gun-control bills “shouldn’t be tough votes.” If the legislature won’t act, he said, “we’re not going to wait around for the next tragedy.”
McAuliffe was flanked by about two dozen state and local law enforcement officers as he signed the executive order.
In an emotional speech, U.S. Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., recalled the heroism of Virginia Tech engineering professor Liviu Librescu during the 2007 mass shooting on the school’s campus. Librescu, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor, was gunned down while blocking the door to his classroom to allow his students to escape out the window.
Kaine, who was governor during the Tech shootings, said “we’ve had too many bystanders.”
“We’re not going to be bystanders,” Kaine said. “We’re going to win this fight.”
The governor’s order also called for judges and prosecutors to use their powers to require gun forfeiture in domestic violence cases and directed the Virginia State Police to request tracing of every gun used in a crime.
Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun-control organization founded by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — who was shot in a January 2011 attack — released a statement saying McAuliffe is “establishing himself as a true champion for common sense.”
“Most significantly, Gov. McAuliffe is showing other governors around the country they don’t have to wait on often stubborn legislatures to fill gaps in enforcement and other key areas of gun safety,” said Peter Ambler, the group’s director.
Dan Gecker, the Democratic candidate in the Richmond area’s hotly contested 10th District Senate race, released a statement supporting the governor’s order.
“While my opponent will stand with the NRA, I will stand with Gov. McAuliffe and families of gun violence victims in the Virginia Senate,” Gecker said.
Asked for a response, the campaign of Glen Sturtevant, Gecker’s Republican opponent, also issued a statement.
“Glen will push for reforms and investments that make sure people with mental illness get the help they need before their illness turns into a tragedy, and he will advocate for strong enforcement of our state and federal gun laws so that individuals who are ineligible to possess guns do not get them,” said Sturtevant campaign manager Matt Brown.