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Limiting Weapons at Rallies

The aftermath of August 12 in Charlottesville prompted many responses, including a report that was released on Friday [Dec. 1] citing multiple problems with the police response to the white supremacists that rallied over the summer.  But there have also been calls for more regulation of weapons and private militias in the city. WMRA’s Marguerite Gallorini has this overview of those proposals.

[Crowd demonstrating]

One thing that comes up regularly in conversations about August 12 is the frightening display of heavy weaponry in the city’s streets that day. It was a wake-up call, and some citizens responded.

DAVID SWANSON: I started up a petition asking the City of Charlottesville to prevent anyone from bringing weapons - guns, knives, sticks - to rallies in public places with public permits, and I have gotten no reply whatsoever regarding knives or sticks.

That’s David Swanson, an author and anti-war activist from Charlottesville.

SWANSON: But there is a law that has a list of several cities and counties in Virginia where supposedly you are allowed to ban at least certain kinds of guns, and Richmond is on that list, and Charlottesville isn't - and this is what I've been told by folks here in Charlottesville and by our Delegate in government in Richmond, is that you have to be on that list.

To address this, Democratic House Minority Leader David Toscano is proposing changes during the next General Assembly session starting in January.

DAVID TOSCANO: I predict that there will be many gun safety measures introduced in this General Assembly session. As to Charlottesville and Albemarle, we want to put in a bill that will allow us as a locality to regulate weapons in public spaces like ten other localities are already allowed to do in Virginia.

At the last City Council meeting [November 20] Lisa Robertson, Chief Deputy City Attorney for Charlottesville, cited the example of a similar bill in Tennessee.

LISA ROBERTSON: It's exactly what we need: Tennesse is a Dillon's Rule State, they're a State that allows open-carry of weapons without a permit and conceal-carry of firearms with a permit. They're very similar to us. And as of July 1st, they adopted a bill that allows localities the same authority as the governor has given State agencies at the local level to regulate these things in public spaces. What they've said is that if you have a large event that's taking place for instance in a park, if you take certain steps to manage the area and to control the entrances and to do searches of people on the way in and to post the area's been one that during that event, you're not allowed to have firearms in that area, you can do things a certain way.

SWANSON: A bill through the Virginia legislature that would make very clear that every locality has the right to ban weapons at its own discretion I think would be an excellent step. The next step would be for the State of Virginia to ban or at least restrict weapons statewide.

While not about weapons specifically, there is now a state lawsuit against private militias. Philip Zelikow, attorney and White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia, recalled a case that can provide a precedent for Charlottesville.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: I remembered, from my own experience in litigation against right-wing extremist groups in the 1980s, back in Texas, that Texas, like most states, has laws that prohibit private armies. They prohibit paramilitary groups arming themselves and coming to political confrontations. They prohibit self-appointed peacekeepers. These are old laws; some of them go back to the very founding of the Republic. So Virginia, like most states, also has these laws in the books.

Drawing from this, the City Council of Charlottesville joined the Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection in filing a state lawsuit asking “to prohibit key “Unite the Right” organizers and an array of participating private paramilitary groups and their commanders from coming back to Virginia to conduct illegal paramilitary activity.”  But what about the Second Amendment? Here’s Professor Zelikow again.

ZELIKOW: Whatever you think about the right to bear arms for individual self-defense, this is not a right that then allows you to elbow aside the local sheriff and make yourself the sheriff of your county, and organize twenty of your friends with assault weapons to set up a private militia. That's not what the Second Amendment was meant to protect. The Second Amendment explicitly says that militias are to be "well-regulated," of course, by the State. Then they meant the States, that individual States each had the job of keeping the peace and organizing the militias. If everybody could organize their own militias and everybody could organize their own police, democratic government would disappear.

Regarding the lawsuit, motions to dismiss are pending in the state court. As for the petition, David Swanson hasn’t heard back from City Council members, but he said he would check in with allies, like the local Amnesty International or the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice, to see how they could press City Council to act. Indeed, Jason Kessler recently announced he applied to hold another rally to protest against “government civil rights abuse” at an anniversary rally in Emancipation Park on Aug. 11-12 of next year.

Marguerite Gallorini was a feelance journalist for WMRA from 2015 -2018.