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Bill Seeks to Ban Guns on Capitol Square, Adjacent Streets

Gun ban sign
A sign announcing Richmond's gun ban at protest events outside the Science Museum of Virginia, where the state Senate is meeting during the 2021 legislative session. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

This article was updated after a subcommittee voted in favor of the bill.

A panel of the Virginia House of Delegates approved a bill to ban people from carrying firearms on Capitol Square and adjacent streets. The vote came a day after small groups of armed pro-gun activists gathered near the Capitol building on state property, where a city ordinance banning guns at public events wouldn’t apply.   

“If you want to persuade me or you want to unelect me, there’s nothing more American than that,” said Del. Mark Levine, who introduced the bill. “But I’m really tired of people thinking that if they have a gun, they get to make the rules.”

At a meeting of the House Firearms Sub-committee Levine, a Democrat from Alexandria, cited the deadly riot at the nation’s capital earlier this month, as well as the small gathering of far-right groups outside the capitol in Richmond on Monday. He called their actions an attempt at intimidation. 

Lori Haas, Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence echoed Levine. 

“Political discourse should be free exchange of ideas,” Haas said. “And armed intimidation has no place in the political process.”

But gun rights groups pushed back on that argument. Philip Van Cleave is with the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which organizes a pro-gun rally at the capitol every year.  Last year, the event drew about 20,000 people. 

“I've been doing this 24 years,” Van Cleave said. “There's never been a problem. And we had a huge rally last year. Nothing.”

When Democrats took control of the Virginia House and Senate last year they established a rule banning firearms on the property. Republicans permitted the public to bring firearms into the Capitol, including the public gallery that oversees the House and Senate Chambers. 

Levine’s bill would make the rule a permanent law. 

“I’m thankful that on January 6, actually, so few of the mob had weapons, and I think that’s largely due to D.C. 's weapons laws,” Levine said. “That could have been a real catastrophe.”

Levine said it appeared that on Monday, the city’s new ordinance banning firearms on city property during a protest was insufficient. Richmond City Council passed the ban in September, following months of racial justice protests during which some Black Lives Matter activists carried firearms. Violators could face a class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500. 

Richmond Police did not appear to have arrested or cited anyone for violating the ordinance, despite the highly visible presence of weapons. Richmond Police did not respond to requests for comment about why the ordinance was apparently not enforced. 

One man was arrested near the Robert E. Lee Monument, however, where about one hundred Black Lives Matter activists were gathered. Franklin Thurston, a Black man, was issued a summons for possession of a concealed firearm without a concealed carry permit. 

Del. Levine’s bill passed the House firearms sub-committee on a vote 5-3 and will be considered by a larger public safety committee before going to the House floor.