In June, the Virginia General Assembly passed a slew of gun control bills, including one that allows cities and counties to prohibit guns on public property. Localities across the state, like Newport News and Alexandria, have since enacted such a ban—and last week, Charlottesville followed suit.
Beginning October 1, guns will be prohibited in parks, buildings, and recreational or community centers owned by the city. They’ll also be banned on public streets or rights-of-way used for—or adjacent to—a permitted event, according to an ordinance unanimously passed by City Council on September 8.
What might have seemed like a straightforward progressive reform has, in fact, stirred controversy.
Anti-racist activist Brad Slocum fears the ordinance will be selectively enforced, pointing to the infamous Unite the Right rally, during which Charlottesville and state police officers stood by as white supremacists attacked counterprotesters.
“There’s ample recent and historical evidence that these kinds of ordinances…are not usually enforced against groups or individuals that are perceived as friendly to the police or the state, [like] militias, white supremacists, and similar types,” says Slocum, who supports defunding the police. “Whereas they do seem historically to be enforced against Black, left-wing, or otherwise non- or anti-establishment groups and individuals, sometimes severely.”
City resident Sean Reid also believes the law will disproportionately impact Black people, citing CPD’s long history of racism and overpolicing. According to Charlottesville Open Data, about 54 percent of people arrested by CPD since 2015 have been Black, even though the city is only about 18 percent Black.
Police officers are also not going to be posted at every city property, leaving many without a way to defend themselves or a sense of safety, says UVA grad student Ben (who asked that we not use his last name).
Though he views gun violence as a “non-issue” in the places where the city has now banned guns, Ben, who is a gun owner, also questions whether the law will be an effective way to prevent it, pointing to shootings that have occurred in places where guns were banned.
(Due to the varying definitions of “mass shooting” and “gun-free zone,” research remains unclear on whether shootings occur at increased rates in gun-free zones.)
Speaking only for herself, City Councilor Sena Magill says she too worries about the “unintended consequences” the ordinance could have, but feels that it is “the right way forward,” specifically because of the violence and trauma surrounding Unite the Right.
“If this ordinance had been in place on August 12, 2017, hundreds of people would not have been able to legally gather on park property and intimidate and threaten my friends and family,” she says. “I [also] don’t want someone to be able to walk into City Hall with a gun on their hip…and be able to intimidate the City Hall staff.”
“We’ve seen extremists exploit lax gun laws to terrorize the public,” adds Mike Fox, legislative lead for the Crozet chapter of gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action. “We saw it with Unite the Right in Charlottesville, earlier this year when armed demonstrators descended upon Richmond, [and] we’ve seen it across the state, where you have armed citizens showing up at government meetings, intimidating lawmakers [and] voters.”
According to spokesman Tyler Hawn, CPD is creating an educational and awareness campaign on the ordinance “to ensure understanding and compliance.” It will alert the public of where they can and cannot legally carry a gun, and the consequences that can come with violating the ordinance, a Class 1 misdemeanor: up to a year in jail, and a fine of up to $2,500.
Updated 9/16 to clarify the racial disparity in arrests made by CPD