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Advocates Seek to Ban Guns at Virginia Polling Locations

Two voters cast ballots in building
Voters cast a ballot in Richmond last year. Many polling locations already ban guns, but gun rights activists are pushing for a uniform ban across the commonwealth. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News).

Virginia voters will no longer be able to carry firearms into polling locations under legislation advancing in the General Assembly.

Republicans and gun rights activists argue the bill is unnecessary given the commonwealth’s existing laws prohibiting voter intimidation. And they’ve questioned how gun owners with concealed carry permits could scare other people if their weapon was out of sight. 

But Democrats have so far sided with gun control activists, the League of Women Voters and the Voter Registrars’ Association of Virginia in arguing the rules are needed.

“There's a certain peace of mind of a voter knowing that there are no guns in the polling places,” Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria), who sponsored the legislation, told a House panel on Wednesday. “Whether they can see the guns or they can't see the guns, they know that it's prohibited.”

Democrats in the House Privileges and Elections Committee voted to advance the bill to the full General Assembly on Wednesday in a 13-9 party-line vote. 

Voting locations at schools and some civic buildings already prohibit voters from bringing in firearms. The bill would extend that coverage to all polling places, electoral board meetings, and recount sites. It includes exceptions for law enforcement, licensed security officers, and people on nearby private property. 

Backers of the bill argued that polling locations can be flashpoints for conflict in a hyper-partisan political climate. And they said there was no good reason to bring a firearm to a polling booth.

“This is not a constitutional issue,” Josh Horwitz, director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told the committee. “It's a safety issue.”

Allison Robbins, head of the registrar’s association and a registrar in Wise County, said the group’s support for the measure stemmed from a desire for more consistent rules. 

Skeptics like Del. Les Adams (R-Pittsylvania) said backers of the bill had not sufficiently explained why the current laws on voter intimidation were inadequate.

“That justification, which is the only justification has been offered...does not apply when someone is carrying concealed,” Adams said.

Levine, who is running for lieutenant governor, is also seeking to ban firearms from Capitol Square and adjacent streets.

Several other Democratic bills advanced from the committee to the full House of Delegates. That includes legislation that would make curbside voting a permanent for people with disabilities or during a future governor-declared state of emergency related to a public health threat. The proposal earned unanimous support from the panel.