A Richmond Circuit Court judge on Thursday denied a bid from gun-rights activists to block Gov. Ralph Northam’s temporary gun ban for Capitol Square ahead of a rally there Monday.
“The governor is vested with the power to take ‘action from time to time as is necessary for the adequate promotion and coordination of state and local emergency services activities relating to the safety and welfare of the commonwealth,” Judge Joi J. Taylor wrote in her three-page ruling. “The plaintiffs in this case will not suffer an irreparable harm sufficient to justify the injunction.”
Northam said it was the right decision.
“I took this action to protect Virginians from credible threats of violence. These threats are real,” the governor said in a statement, pointing to FBI arrests in Maryland and Delaware of three men, alleged white nationalists or neo-Nazis, discussing plans to head to Richmond armed with guns.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League and Gun Owners of America, two groups opposing gun control legislation in Virginia, filed a lawsuit Thursday morning against Northam and Capitol Police Chief Steve Pike, whose agency would enforce the ban. The complaint includes three citizen plaintiffs who say they were planning to attend Monday’s rally with their firearms.
Taylor presided over an emergency hearing Thursday afternoon. She ruled just as court closed for a four-day weekend.
Late Thursday, the gun-rights groups filed an emergency appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that "without relief from this court, petitioners and thousands of other rally participants will be irreparably denied their right to bear arms."
It would be unusual — though not out of the question — for the state Supreme Court to take up anything before Monday’s rally, according to Carl Tobias, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Richmond. State offices, including courts, will be closed Friday for Virginia’s Lee-Jackson Day and Monday for the holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which was one reason for the expedited hearing Thursday.
Northam issued the temporary ban on firearms and other weapons in advance of the rally organized by the VCDL to protest gun control legislation Democratic lawmakers are proposing. Organizers are expecting up to 50,000 people.
David G. Browne, an attorney who represented the gun-rights groups, said they were asking for a temporary injunction of only the portion of the executive order prohibiting firearms — not other weapons such as bats, sticks, etc.
Browne called the ban an “unconstitutional restraint” infringing on rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Virginia Constitution.
He argued that the fears of what could happen — “a repeat of Charlottesville,” where the Unite the Right rally in August 2017 turned deadly — “is pure speculation.” In Charlottesville, white nationalists clashed with counterprotesters. One woman was killed and more than 30 people were injured in a car attack.
“Excluding people with firearms [from the Capitol grounds] will only increase the risk of Charlottesville, because it will likely displace this large expected crowd on the streets,” Browne said in court. “They will be surrounding the grounds, rather than in it.”
Toby J. Heytens, Virginia’s solicitor general, said Northam was acting on “credible evidence,” which he offered to share with the court, but did not, that some among the expected crowd of tens of thousands are coming ready for “violence, rebellion and insurrection.”
Following the ruling, Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement: “To those who would come here intending to incite violence I simply say stay home. Don’t come to Virginia. Don’t come to Richmond.”
In an interview Wednesday, VCDL President Philip Van Cleave had said his group believes Northam doesn’t have the legal authority to levy the ban.
“The rally is going on no matter what,” Van Cleave said.
Senate Republican leaders on Wednesday expressed similar concerns about Northam’s authority to impose the gun ban and argued that his decision “may be serving to heighten rather than assuage tensions.”
On Thursday, they joined House GOP leaders in sending a letter to Northam requesting a private briefing on the threats to public safety that the governor cited to justify the ban.
“Considering the abridgment of the constitutional rights of Virginians your declaration has imposed, and because we have serious concerns about whether a governor has the authority to enact such restrictions, we believe it is imperative that leaders of the General Assembly — representing both majority and minority caucuses — are appropriately briefed as to the nature of these threats,” the letter reads.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, Senate Minority Leader Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, and other top Republicans signed the letter.