Surry ordinance banning guns in government buildings passes 4-1

Published 4:13 pm Friday, November 4, 2022

Surry County supervisors voted 4-1 on Nov. 3 to enact an ordinance prohibiting guns in government buildings.

The ordinance prohibits the carrying of “any firearm, ammunition, components, or combination thereof” inside any building or part of a building that is “used for governmental purposes by the County” and in any recreation or community center “owned and operated by the County.”

An attached list specifies the ordinance would apply to the Surry County government center, the Surry County parks and recreation center, the Dendron community center, Surry’s animal shelter, economic development building and workforce development building, the Virginia Cooperative Extension building, Surry’s emergency operations and rescue squad building, the county maintenance building, tourism building and all four solid waste convenience centers – though the prohibition would only apply inside the buildings.

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The ordinance prohibits enforcement at any location where signage informing citizens of the new restriction is not posted. The prohibition would not apply to property that is leased for non-governmental purposes, such as the Surry Seafood Co. restaurant and marina.

Violation is to be prosecuted as a class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500. 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.”

Supervisor Timothy Calhoun cast the dissenting vote. Citing the opposition the supervisors had heard from residents at the county’s Oct. 6 public hearing on the matter, Calhoun motioned ahead of the vote to remove the ordinance from the agenda “permanently,” but received no second. He then motioned to postpone the vote until February to allow any new board members elected on Nov. 8 to have a say, but that too failed for lack of a second.

Twenty people had spoken during the hour-long Oct. 6 hearing, 19 of them opposed and one in favor of the ordinance. Most identified themselves as county residents, though the hearing also drew out-of-area comments by Phillip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League gun rights group, and from Del. Kim Taylor, R-Petersburg.

Newly added to the ordinance since the hearing is a provision authorizing the county administrator – provided there is concurrence by the supervisors and sheriff – to order “lawful security measures including, but not limited to, metal detectors.”

The Surry County government complex, which doubles as the county’s General District courthouse, is already equipped with metal detectors, but they typically aren’t in use during the evenings when the supervisors meet.

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, parks and at public events.

“Prior to that passage in 2020 no local government had the ability to put up metal detectors or to restrict firearms,” said County Attorney Lola Perkins.

Other gun laws passed that year included reinstating Virginia’s one-handgun-purchase-a-month restriction, 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 had led a statewide push for localities to preemptively declare themselves “Second Amendment sanctuary” counties. The Smithfield Times previously reported in 2019 that Surry had adopted a resolution at the time in support of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to bear arms, but stopped short of declaring the county a “sanctuary.”