The Virginia state government’s attacks on law-abiding gun owners continue apace. On September 1, Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) used his position to offer an expansive interpretation of statute that will create a confusing patchwork of gun-free zones throughout the Commonwealth. Herring’s actions are an important reminder that gun rights supporters need to be cognizant not only of the plain reading of proposed statutes, but also how their language might be perverted by anti-gun political officials.
Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly passed and Governor Ralph Northam (D) signed HB 2081. The legislation altered VA Code Ann. § 24.2-604 to make it a crime “to knowingly possess any firearm… within 40 feet of any building, or part thereof, used as a polling place.” Violating this provision is a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to a year imprisonment, up to a $2,500 fine, or both.
A reasonable person might read the new § 24.2-604 and take care not to exercise their Right-to-Carry while voting or near the local voting precincts on election day. However, by Herring’s lights, the new prohibition is far broader in both space and time.
The attorney general was asked the following by an Albemarle County election official. (Albemarle is the county surrounding the city of Charlottesville, which is home to the University of Virginia.)
[D]uring ‘early voting,’ prior to the date of a general, special, or primary election, are central absentee voter precincts, voter satellite offices, and offices of general registrars ‘polling places,’ and thus subject to the firearm prohibition?
It is my opinion that firearms are prohibited at central absentee voter precincts, voter satellite offices, and offices of general registrars where they are the designated locations for early voting in the locality, in the same way that firearms are prohibited at polling places when the polls are open on Election Day.
Moreover, Herring made clear that the prohibition “applies to the 40-foot boundary around the portion of the building being used as a polling place, including any entrances and exits,” but not necessarily the entire building.
Early voting in Virginia starts 45 days prior to election day. Early and absentee voting locations are often peppered throughout a jurisdiction and can change from election to election. As Virginia has off-off-year state elections, the Commonwealth’s law-abiding gun owners will be forced to navigate around a confusing patchwork of shifting gun-free zones for at least a month-and-a-half every year starting in mid-September.
Contrary to Herring’s view, the language of § 24.2-604 contemplates its prohibited activities applying to an “election day.” Consider subsection (E), which states, “This section shall not be construed to prohibit a candidate from entering any polling place on the day of the election to vote, or to visit a polling place for no longer than 10 minutes per polling place per election day…”
As with so much government regulation, HB 2081 and the expansive attorney general’s opinion are completely unnecessary to protect Virginia voters.
VA Code Ann. § 24.2-607 already makes it “unlawful for any person to hinder, intimidate, or interfere with any qualified voter so as to prevent the voter from casting a secret ballot.” A violation of this statute is punishable in the same manner as the new firearm prohibition – as a Class 1 misdemeanor. If a criminal were to commit politically-motivated violence at a polling place they could also potentially face charges under Virginia’s terrorism statute (VA Code Ann. § 18.2-46.5) in addition to the underlying offense.
Further, the legislation and Herring’s creative interpretation weren’t even necessary for the hoplophobic portions of the Commonwealth to restrict firearms in early voting locations. Enacted in 2020, HB421/SB35 weakened Virginia’s longstanding state firearms preemption law to grant localities the power to create gun free zones “in any building, or part thereof, owned or used by such locality, or by any authority or local governmental entity created or controlled by the locality, for governmental purposes.”
Given the pre-2021 statutes that could be brought to bear on this matter, it’s clear these new restrictions aren’t about public safety. These measures are about politicians indulging their ugly political and cultural prejudices by further discouraging law-abiding gun owners from exercising their Right-to-Carry in the Commonwealth.