Republican-led city councils create new labels for gun 'sanctuary' cities

By Sean Galvin

December 2, 2019

Democrats impending take over of the General Assembly has prompted twelve  Republican-led county boards to declare themselves as “Second Amendment Sanctuary” cities. While the specific wording varies from city to city, the broad strokes remain the same: Counties are saying they will refuse to enforce new gun safety regulations. Whether or not these resolutions can legally be enforced, however, may not be open for debate. 

Virginia is one of the 35 states that employ the Dillon Rule, which dictates that the state’s authority trumps that of the municipalities. The Dillon Rule, which references an 1886 ruling by Judge John F. Dillon in the Iowa Supreme Court, which restricts counties’ authority. Democrats found themselves on the opposite side of this law when it was used to prevent several Democratic-controlled municipalities from removing Confederate monuments.

“What they can do as a practical matter is quite limited,” University of Virginia Professor Rich Schragger, who specializes in constitutional law, told 10 News in a recent interview. “Mostly, declaring yourself a Second Amendment sanctuary is more of a symbolic statement.”

Critics of the Second Amendment sanctuaries effort warn that it may signal whether law enforcement officials will actually enforce any new laws passed by the Democratic General Assembly. Law officers have a great deal of discretion in terms of how they enforce laws and may find ways to avoid fully implementing any new legislation that passes.

Democrats have been vocal about their plans to pursue gun safety when the legislature reconvenes in January. Gov. Ralph Northam has promised to re-introduce eight gun safety bills that were previously rejected by the GOP-led legislature.

Some groups opposed to gun safety laws have signaled they’ll go further to opposed new laws. Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a lobbying group opposed to gun safety measures that helped organize the “Second Amendment sanctuary” campaign in Amherst and other localities, said they would resist following the laws altogether.

“You’re not required to obey an unconstitutional law,” Van Cleave told the Virginia Mercury.

The term “sanctuary city” is a nod to cities and counties around the United States in the wake of Trump administration policies that targeted undocumented immigrants. But cities making those declarations were not breaking any laws, instead they were refusing voluntary cooperation with the federal government. State laws like gun safety legislation, however, are not voluntary, and by refusing to cooperate counties could be breaking the law.

Friction between the state and local governments have plagued some of the other states like New Mexico and Illinois that recently passed gun safety measures of their own. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson threatened to hold “Second Amendment Counties” liable in the event of gun violence in those communities. How those tensions play out in Virginia, however, remains to be seen.

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