As the General Assembly gathered this week to start considering gun control measures that have spurred some local governments to pass protest resolutions, Chesterfield County officials approved a formal statement addressing the debate following weeks of lobbying by gun-rights supporters.
A gun-rights group said Chesterfield’s statement, which it viewed as tepid in some respects, was significant enough to warrant listing the county as one of the 125 localities around the state that the group considers “Second Amendment sanctuaries.” But the chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors cautioned that the county’s statement does not fit neatly into the same category as resolutions passed by some other Virginia localities.
Chesterfield supervisors voted 5-0 at their Wednesday night organizational meeting to formally adopt a letter the panel wrote to state legislators outlining concerns residents have expressed to supervisors in recent weeks about gun control measures that Virginia lawmakers might enact.
That letter was penned following a contentious Dec. 11 meeting attended by more than 1,000 people, most of them gun-rights supporters. Members of the overflow crowd who packed into the county’s public meeting room that night demanded that the board pass a resolution declaring Chesterfield a gun-rights “sanctuary.” The board did not vote on a resolution, but Board of Supervisors Chair Leslie Haley told the crowd the county would forward their concerns to state legislators.
In a statement before Wednesday’s vote, Haley said the Board of Supervisors urged state lawmakers to “contribute to a productive, and not divisive, outcome.” Haley said the panel would not endorse any effort that would infringe on the right to keep and bear arms.
“What it’s basically saying is we’ve heard the citizens and, just like we’ve said, we have promised to share all of their comments downtown [with the General Assembly], and we absolutely understand what the Second Amendment is and we understand the voices of the citizens, and we support those voices,” Haley said after Wednesday’s vote.
Supervisors approved a motion from Haley that the panel accept the letter into the board’s official record, a move that she said makes the letter a formal resolution of the board.
County supervisors said in their letter that comments they’d received indicated strong support for Second Amendment rights. The Dec. 20 letter from the Board of Supervisors letter begins:
“We are all aware of the movement across the Commonwealth of Virginia raising concerns that the 2020 General Assembly session may consider legislative changes that unlawfully restrict citizens’ Second Amendment rights under the Constitution. The purpose of this letter from the Board of Supervisors is to relay what occurred at our most recent meeting on December 11, including comments made by each individual board member.”
The letter also includes two appendices that contain additional statements from incoming Supervisors Jim Ingle Jr. and Kevin Carroll as well as Chesterfield Chief of Police Jeffrey S. Katz.
Among those statements were comments from Supervisor Chris Winslow, who said in the letter that newly elected state lawmakers had advocated for “heavy-handed measures” to keep guns from law-abiding people. Outgoing Supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle, meanwhile, said that it was misleading for politicians to suggest they were making people safer by passing gun control measures.
Those kinds of comments drew support from Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which is opposing new gun control laws. Van Cleave said he was also pleased with the letter’s statement that nearly all of the 1,000 people who attended the Dec. 11 meeting were there to support gun rights. Van Cleave said the sentiments expressed in the letter were enough for his group to list Chesterfield as a “Second Amendment sanctuary” hours before Wednesday’s vote.
Van Cleave said that the letter was still fairly weak, adding that he would have written some parts of it differently.
“It got across the finish line,” Van Cleave said Thursday. “It was nothing to write home about.”
The letter says that supervisors are operating under the assumption that if an unconstitutional law is passed, then the courts will weigh in on any dispute.
“Our individual and collective statements express that these individual-rights issues are appropriately considered and decided at the state and federal government levels, not by a Virginia locality,” the letter says.
Asked after the vote if the move designates the county as a gun-rights sanctuary, Haley said it did not.
“If somebody is looking to put it in a little box like some of the other resolutions [passed by other localities], it doesn’t go in that box,” Haley said.
Supervisor Jim Holland, the lone Democrat on the board, said he voted for Haley’s motion in order to reaffirm his own statements included in the letter, including his call for “common-sense” gun control laws. Holland added that the shootings that have taken place in the U.S. are horrifying. A mass shooting in Virginia Beach last year that left 12 dead spurred calls for gun control from Virginia Democrats.
Holland also said that citizens on both sides of the gun debate were entitled to a response from supervisors.
Holland disputed the notion from the gun-rights group that Chesterfield is a “sanctuary” locality for gun rights.
“We have not taken any action to do so nor would I support any action to do so,” Holland said Thursday.