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GOP candidates seize on gun rights movement sweeping across Virginia

Opponents to Rep. Elaine Luria turn out to vocally support ‘Second Amendment sanctuary’ movement

Speaker Nancy Pelosi during an event last January touting a bill the House later passed to expand gun background checks. Republican candidates this year are trying to put Democrats on the defensive using declarations by local governments that their cities are sanctuaries for the Second Amendment. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi during an event last January touting a bill the House later passed to expand gun background checks. Republican candidates this year are trying to put Democrats on the defensive using declarations by local governments that their cities are sanctuaries for the Second Amendment. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A gun rights movement spreading across Virginia came to the heart of Democrat Elaine Luria’s swing district Monday night, when city officials voted to make Virginia Beach — the site of a 2019 mass shooting — a “sanctuary” for Second Amendment rights. 

The resolution is one of more than 100 similar measures passed in Virginia localities since Democrats flipped the state legislature in November on a platform that included gun control, prompting blowback from some conservatives who say it could be a rallying cry up and down the ballot in Virginia and other purple states in the 2020 elections.

So far, the “Second Amendment sanctuary” movement has focused on pressuring state and local officials to buck state-level gun control efforts, but that hasn’t stopped congressional candidates and lawmakers from weighing in.

That was the case Monday night in Virginia Beach, where Ben Loyola, former Rep. Scott Taylor, Jarome Bell and Andy Baan, who are seeking the GOP nod to challenge Luria in the 2nd District, joined the crowd in the packed City Council chambers to voice full-throated support.

Loyola, a retired Navy captain, choked back tears as he recounted his parents’ experience living under Fidel Castro in Cuba, where, he said, taking citizens’ guns was the authoritarian government’s first strike against their freedom.

“This is the greatest country in the world,” Loyola said. “I cannot believe we are here to defend our God-given rights to self-defense, to protect against tyranny.”

Luria’s seat is a top GOP target. The congresswoman is one of three Democrats defending Virginia districts they flipped in 2018. Candidates challenging Reps. Jennifer Wexton in the 10th District and Abigail Spanberger in the 7th have also spoken out in favor of the Second Amendment sanctuary movement.

Luria, Wexton and Spanberger all voted for HR 8, House Democrats’ signature gun control bill that passed the chamber in February and would broaden the federal background check system for firearms purchases.

Spanberger, who has said she favors stricter firearm regulations, pointed to her background growing up in a household with guns when she was asked about the Second Amendment sanctuary movement at a December town hall.

“I fully support the Second Amendment,” she said. “It is a fundamental constitutional right, and I affirm that.”

Neither Luria, a retired Navy commander, nor Wexton has made public statements about the issue, according to a roundup on progressive website Blue Virginia. Luria’s office declined to comment for this story, and Wexton’s office did not return a request for comment. 

Gun control advocates say that voters have expressed support for candidates who favor “commonsense” changes and that courts have found that measures under consideration in Virginia are consistent with Second Amendment rights.

“We are not talking about a grassroots movement,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “We are talking about a dangerous push from the gun lobby to remain relevant.”

Virginia Democrats are considering bills to restore the state’s one-handgun-per-month purchase limit; background checks for all gun sales, except those between immediate family members, those acquired through inheritance, or antique firearm sales; and “red flag laws” that allow the temporary confiscation of firearms from people deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others.

The Virginia Beach resolution declared the city a “Second Amendment constitutional city” and expressed the City Council’s opposition to “any law that would unconstitutionally restrict the rights of law abiding citizens of the City to keep and bear arms.”

Whether the resolution has any weight beyond political messaging is an open question. A state court doctrine known as the Dillon rule says local governments only have the powers granted to them by the state, and the state has not granted localities the power to ignore or violate state laws. 

The resolution nevertheless advanced by a vote of 6-4 after nearly four hours of public comments in front of a crowd studded with bright red lapel stickers that read “Guns save lives.”

Similar scenes have played out across the state in recent weeks, spearheaded by the gun rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League, which has crafted model resolutions. It is also spreading to other states.

After attending a Second Amendment sanctuary meeting in his home county over the holidays, Kentucky GOP Rep. Thomas Massie tweeted that the movement “feels even stronger than the Tea Party in 2010.”

In Virginia Beach, several speakers referenced the shooting at the city municipal complex in May, when a disgruntled city employee killed 12 people and wounded four others. They also mentioned a Dec. 29 shooting at a Texas church, saying targets of such massacres stand a better chance if they are armed. A gunman in the Texas church shot and killed two people before he was shot and killed by two church security guards.

Loyola made a dig at Luria’s repeated reference to the oaths she has taken to uphold the Constitution in defense of her decision to vote to impeach President Donald Trump, another position that Republicans think will make her vulnerable in 2020.

“We all took oaths of office,” he said. “Please don’t erode our God-given rights to protect ourselves.”

Taylor, whom Luria unseated in 2018, called the state’s proposed gun control measures “unfair, unjust and unconstitutional.”

Trump carried Luria’s 2nd District by 3 points in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates her reelection Leans Democratic.

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