Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: What Alexandria can and can’t do about guns

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(Courtesy photo)
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Last month, Parkland, Florida, became the most recent city to experience the horror of a mass school shooting. Seventeen people were gunned down, with as many more injured, at the hands of an angry young man toting an AR- 15 semi-automatic rifle.

Of course, this type of event has become all too familiar to Americans. Since the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999, approximately 80 mass shootings have been recorded in the United States. This number does not include events in which no one other than the shooter was killed; for instance, the Simpson Field shooting that occurred in Alexandria last summer is not included in the total cited above because only the gunman perished during the attack.

In the weeks since the Parkland tragedy, I have been contacted by a number of citizens asking questions that fall into two categories: 1) What Virginia laws address the possession or use of firearms? and 2) What local ordinances might the city enact to attempt to address the issue and hopefully prevent a similar occurrence in Alexandria? Because my response to these questions is somewhat lengthy, it will be necessary to stretch it into two separate editions of my column.

I must digress to make an important note. I am the commonwealth’s attorney, meaning that I am the city’s criminal prosecutor, and my office has little responsibility in the world of civil law. The city attorney, on the other hand, is a separate entity that is responsible for representing the city in civil litigation and for advising the city manager and council on legal matters. This means that the second query, regarding the authority of the city to enact local ordinances, is outside my area of expertise. However, since the question is easily answered, I will endeavor to address it as well.

In 2008, the U. S. Supreme Court decided the case of “District of Columbia v. Heller.” The holding of the case was clear: the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights enshrines a personal right to purchase, possess and use firearms for lawful purposes. However, the Court also held that this personal right is not unlimited, and may be lawfully regulated by the states in an effort to promote the safety of the populace.

Virginia has several statutes regulating the personal right to possess firearms. Background checks are required for gun purchases from commercial firearms dealers, although a sale between two private citizens is exempt from this requirement. People who have been convicted of a felony crime, people who have been involuntarily admitted to a mental facility and people who have been found not guilty of a criminal offense by reason of insanity are generally prohibited from purchasing or possessing a gun.

The carrying of a concealed firearm is prohibited, with an exception included in the code for a citizen who procures a concealed weapon permit. Citizens are sometimes surprised to learn that the open carry of a firearm is unregulated; any adult not otherwise disabled from possessing a gun may strap a pistol to his belt or a rifle to his back and stroll down King Street.

The state code does prohibit a person from openly carrying two types of firearms in the city, if loaded: a semi-automatic weapon with a magazine capable of carrying more than 20 rounds and a “streetsweeper” shotgun. Sawed-off shotguns and fully automatic weapons are also regulated by specific sections of the code and generally cannot be carried in public places.

Private business owners may, at their discretion, forbid the carrying of firearms on their property, and the possession of any gun on school grounds is strictly prohibited, although
some exceptions exist: a concealed weapons permit holder may lawfully possess a gun in a school parking lot, and security personnel with firearms training are likewise exempt.
It is impossible to give a detailed synopsis of the pertinent Virginia law in this space, and there are other relevant portions of the code that address firearms. However, the sections related above are the ones most frequently asked about.

Next month, I will address the second question regarding the city’s ability to regulate firearms. For now, a short answer will suffice: because of a legal doctrine
known as the ‘Dillon Rule,’ the city is basically prohibited from enacting local gun
legislation.

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