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Virginia backlash shows gun control deeply unpopular

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Cartoon by Dave DiFilippo
Cartoon by Dave DiFilippo

Eight North Carolina counties have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries in a preemptive strike against gun control measures like those making their way to the lawbooks in neighboring Virginia.

Davidson County commissioners on Tuesday passed a unanimous resolution declaring that county officials won’t enforce gun laws they consider unconstitutional. Though it’s little more than a symbolic gesture, the demand speaks volumes.

More than 100 local governments in the Old Dominion — cities, towns and counties — have adopted Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions in response to gun control bills advancing through Virginia’s legislature. Democrats who won majorities in both chambers last fall promised stricter gun laws in an effort to prevent mass shootings.

Tough-talking county commissioners and city councilors are shooting blanks, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring says. In a Dec. 20 advisory opinion, Herring wrote that “localities and local constitutional officers cannot nullify state laws and must comply with gun violence prevention measures that the General Assembly may enact.”

Gun rights advocates are planning a Monday rally in Richmond, and Gov. Ralph Northam has declared a state of emergency and banished firearms from the state Capitol grounds amid fears of extremist violence. Rally organizers are responsible, law-abiding citizens, but they can’t stop unsavory hangers-on from showing up.

Heated rhetoric predicting armed resistance to a government gun grab ought to die down. This week, the most controversial Virginia bill — a measure to ban the sale of so-called assault weapons — died in a state Senate committee when its sponsor asked to withdraw it.

While former Democratic presidential hopefuls Beto O’Rourke and Eric Swalwell are to blame for conjuring the specter of door-to-door gun confiscation, Northam has maintained that any assault weapons ban would include a grandfather clause for people who purchased the firearms lawfully. However, the bill would have required owners of modern sporting rifles like the AR-15 to register them with the state. Creating a registry is feared as a precursor to confiscation.

AR-style guns are functionally similar to wooden-stock semiautomatic rifles commonly used for hunting. They’re not the weapons of war that opponents fear, and efforts to ban them are misguided. Master firearms instructor Dean Hazen explains that the copycat effect, not the rifles’ firepower, is responsible for their use in mass shootings.

“It’s really just a perception thing,” Hazen told USA Today in November 2017. “There are rifles that are more powerful and more dangerous than that, but they’re not being used.”

Other Virginia gun bills would require background checks for private sales, limit buyers to one handgun every 30 days and enact red flag laws that allow authorities to temporarily seize weapons from owners who may be a danger to themselves or others.

The latter legislation poses due process problems. Most red flag laws allow a spouse, partner or relative to give ex-parte testimony. Add a court official’s rubber stamp and you’ve stripped an American citizen of his or her Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms without arrest or trial.

Judges should be able to disarm violent people, but individuals should have the right to defend themselves from accusations of instability or ill intent before officers seize their guns.

Flowery resolutions declaring a county, city or town a “Second Amendment sanctuary” don’t offer gun owners any protection. But plain old inertia might.

President Donald Trump’s U.S. Justice Department issued a rule banning bump stocks — which allow rapid-fire shooting by using recoil to activate successive trigger pulls, mimicking the operation of an automatic weapon — that took effect last March. Owners are required to surrender the devices, but noncompliance is widespread.

Only several hundred bump stocks were turned in to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between the rule’s passage in December 2018 and the March 2019 date it took effect. Between 280,000 and 520,000 were in circulation.

“Bump stocks illegal now, but few, if any, local owners have turned theirs in,” an April headline in The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, reported.

The vaunted ATF, backed by the full might of the United States federal government, can’t account for a measly few hundred thousand bump stocks. More likely, it lacks the appetite to force confrontations by rounding them up. Gun owners shrugged and Uncle Sam blinked.

Americans own between 5 million and 10 million AR-15s. There’s no putting that genie back in the bottle.

Gun control advocates have awoken a sleeping giant in Virginia and energized a grassroots movement of passionate Second Amendment defenders. Lawmakers in bordering states, including ours, ought to pay attention.

Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times. Reach him at 252-265-7813 and cfriedman@wilsontimes.com.