‘We are not your enemies:’ Surry ordinance that would ban guns in government buildings meets opposition

Published 1:17 pm Friday, October 7, 2022

Opponents of a proposed ordinance that would prohibit guns in Surry County government buildings made their displeasure known at an Oct. 6 public hearing.

Twenty people spoke during the hour-long hearing, many sporting orange “guns save lives” stickers distributed by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a statewide gun rights advocacy group. Only one speaker said she favored the proposed ordinance.

“This board, in my opinion, tends to address issues that don’t exist. … We are not your enemies,” said Dendron District resident Helen Eggleston.

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“I say to you … as a God-believing person of God, country and the Constitution that is written by our founding fathers in stone, not as a living, breathing entity to be changed for the modern-day rules of society … don’t deny my right as a law-abiding concealed weapons owner,” said Elwood Conary, also of Dendron.

“I’m a mother of three children under the age of 7; I am a responsible gun owner who holds a concealed-carry permit,” said Surry District resident Samantha Donnelly. “I am also the demographic you seek to disarm. … Although I know Surry County has some amazing sheriff’s deputies, the fact is we are a large, rural county. Just think what can happen in 10, even 5 minutes.”

The hearing also drew out-of-area comments by Virginia Citizens Defense League President Philip Van Cleave of Midlothian and state Del. Kim Taylor, R-Petersburg.

The one supporter of the proposed prohibition, Carsley District resident Carol Marsh, said she works in a building leased by Surry County, and is not allowed to bring her gun to work despite having a concealed-carry permit.

“If I’m not allowed to have my concealed weapon on me at work because of my work policy, anyone caring to receive services should not be allowed to possess a weapon in a building that I work,” Marsh said. “Everyone who carries a gun (is) not mentally stable as noted by the tragedies that have occurred throughout the U.S.”

Surry’s proposed prohibition would apply to transporting or carrying firearms, ammunition or firearm components in “any building or part of a building owned or used for governmental purposes,” as well as “any recreation or community center operated by the County.” According to newly hired County Attorney Lola Perkins, the current wording is “less restrictive” than the version the county had advertised, in that it removes parks and events from the list of prohibited areas, and now mandates that the county post signage clearly marking where guns would be banned.

The list of prohibited places, according to Perkins, would include Surry County’s government center, Circuit Court building, parks and recreation center, the Dendron community center, the animal shelter, economic development building, workforce development building, Virginia Cooperative Extension building, emergency operations and rescue squad building, maintenance building, tourism building and the solid waste convenience centers – though the solid waste center prohibition would only apply to those entering an attendant station, and not to those dumping trash outside. The ordinance would not apply to facilities owned by the county but leased to private entities, Perkins said.

Exemptions would apply to any Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program or firearm-related college sport, law enforcement, Surry’s commonwealth’s attorney, active-duty members of the armed forces and Virginia National Guard, licensed security officers, those authorized to carry guns in courthouses, and “individuals granted an exception by the County Administrator or their designee.”

Surry Supervisor Timothy Calhoun had tried twice to delay the hearing at the start of the Oct. 6 meeting, first by motioning to postpone it indefinitely, and then proposing to reschedule it for February, by which time the Board of Supervisors’ Carsley and Dendron seats would be filled by the winners of the Nov. 8 election rather than the current interim appointees. Both motions failed for lack of a second.

When Supervisor Robert Elliott motioned to schedule the board’s vote on the proposed ordinance for Nov. 3, Calhoun asked that Elliott amend his motion to specify a date in February instead, but Elliott declined to do so. Elliott’s motion to schedule the vote for Nov. 3 passed 3-2 with Calhoun and Dendron District appointee Brenton Byrd voting no.

In 2020, Virginia’s General Assembly enacted a number of new gun laws, among them one allowing – but not requiring – localities to ban guns in government buildings and parks and at public events. Others passed that year included reinstating Virginia’s one-handgun-purchase-a-month ordinance, requiring background checks on all gun sales, increasing the penalty for leaving firearms in the presence of children and a “red flag” law that permits courts to issue an “emergency substantial risk order” permitting law enforcement to temporarily seize firearms from a person deemed to pose a “substantial risk of injury to himself or others.” When Democrats pushing for the new gun laws won control of the state legislature in the November 2019 elections, Van Cleave and the VCDL led a statewide push for localities to preemptively declare themselves “Second Amendment sanctuary” counties. Surry supervisors, in December 2019, had adopted a resolution in support of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to bear arms, but stopped short of declaring the county a “sanctuary,” according to past reporting by The Smithfield Times.

“I’m not trying to take anybody’s weapons from them; we’re just trying to keep the weapons outside the building,” Elliott said. “You can bring your weapons to and from, lock them up when you get there. … You can’t carry them in the school system, we don’t want them in the government buildings.”

“I do support the Second Amendment wholeheartedly” but “do want to make sure we are supporting and protecting people inside the building,” added Byrd, noting he himself holds a concealed carry permit.

Janet Monahan, who’s serving as the board’s interim Carsley District member, noted that “very valid points were made tonight” on both sides of the issue.

“I did not want to do this, and the reason was I have sat here for 20-plus years and every time we have tried as a board to present anything that involved guns … this room would be packed with hunters from all over the state of Virginia standing around the walls … it was not something I was interested in having to go through again,” said Chairwoman Judy Lyttle. “But I do know and understand that the people who work in this building, even the Sheriff’s Department, I have spoken to several of our employees who have been accosted by others that come in and speak to them and they have guns on their sides, and they … start making bad remarks.”