County supervisors, after a debate that stretched past midnight Tuesday, voted to launch work to outlaw firearms at public facilities like the government center, community centers, libraries, and parks.
The county was granted the authority to do so with the latest General Assembly session. At least three other Northern Virginia localities have already begun work implementing this new rule—Alexandria has already adopted an ordinance, and Arlington and Fairfax Counties are in the process.
County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) pointed out that gun restrictions in publicly owned spaces are not new—including in spaces controlled by gun rights advocates such as the White House and U.S. Senate.
“I would agree that the president’s position is much more powerful and much more important than my position, but I would also say I’m not sure that his life is much more important than my life,” Randall said.
Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) said she has constituents whose freedom of speech is curtailed because they are too afraid to come to the government center on nights its filled with armed protesters.
“For the sake of those people in this county who do not feel safe in this chamber, to come in and express their feelings because they see guns in the chamber, I’m going to vote for them,” Umstattd said.
Supervisors Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin), on the other hand, argued that outlawing guns in public spaces makes those spaces more dangerous.
“The only people that obey any of these are good guys with guns,” Buffington sad. “Bad guys with guns are bad guys with guns, and they don’t obey the law, so we can make all the laws that we want, none of it matters.”
“We’re going to be, as the old adage said, like fish in a barrel,” Kershner said. He later added: “People should have the right to protect themselves. I don’t want to have to depend on someone else to wait to fight back as I watch a shooter or bad actor systematically shoot staff or lethally attack my family or my friends in a public place.”
It is already policy that county staff members do not carry firearms while working, a policy approved in 1995, according to Director of General Services Ernie Brown.
“Sometimes I wish I was on the Supreme Court, because when you’re on the Supreme Court, and there’s a decision, you can choose which parts of the majority opinion to agree with an which parts to disagree with, and that’s the situation that I find myself in somewhat often on this board in this term,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). He said, while he agreed with Randall’s point on gun-free government buildings, he also agreed with Buffington and Kerhsner’s point about the “fecklessness of simply putting a sign out that says it’s a gun-free zone, and not thinking that someone will ill will is going to commit their crime anyway.”
“There are armed guards here, and so I am supportive of a measure that would restrict weapons in a facility like this where we have the ability to control it—‘good guys with guns,’ so to speak, such as the gentleman in the back of this room.”
The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office posts an executive detail to maintain security at the county government center, along with the Shenandoah building also in Leesburg and the Ridgetop Circle center in Sterling—two other county government buildings that are open to the public.
Seeing that some sort of gun ban was likely to pass, Buffington sought a compromise position, moving only to prohibit them inside buildings, but not in county parks. He hastened to add even that he does not personally support.
“I’m not doing this for political reasons, because if I was, I would have just voted no and stuck to my guns with what I said the first time,” Buffington said. “If this passes, when people research what happened, they’ll see that I made this stupid motion. I mean, it’s going to look like Buffington thought this was a great idea.”
However, the motion to narrow the scope of the proposed prohibition failed, with only Buffington, Kershner and Letourneau voting in favor. Instead, supervisors voted 6-2-1 to begin work on the broader rule. The six Democrats voted in favor, Buffington and Kershner opposed, and Letourneau abstaining.
“Don’t you all wish that we had had a good 911 system before Fitz drowned?” said Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian), referring to failures in the 911 response the night 16-year-old Fitz Thomas drowned at the confluence of the Goose Creek and Potomac River. “Don’t you wish we would have had a better system to mark the river before that incident happened? That’s what we’re talking about here. We can prevent a tragedy by instituting a policy that makes our citizens safer.”
That vote begins a process that includes public hearings and another vote.
Another possible new ordinance, to also restrict guns at county-permitted events, narrowly failed over concerns of the vagueness of the language in the state law. It was not immediately clear what the state law allows the county to do—there is no definition for permitted events.
“The staff and I have had considerable discussion about what we think or don’t think this language says,” said County Administrator Tim Hemstreet. “I think the staff conclusion is that this language is, at best, inartfully written.”
“This one feels like the majority of it is unintended consequences,” Randall said.
That motion was voted down 5-4, with Umstattd, Turner, Briskman and Vice Chairman Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) in favor.
Protests and Public Outcry
The possibility of new gun restrictions attracted a new round of demonstrations.
On Sunday, Loudoun Moms Demand Action held a socially-distanced rally to ask supervisors to use their new authority. Organizers said they held the event Sunday, and not the day of the meeting, to avoid attracting armed counterdemonstrators to an event where demonstrators had brought their children.
During the meeting Tuesday, pro-gun demonstrators met chanted and heard speeches outside the building during a protest organized by Virginia Constitutional Conservatives.
“They would rather see women jogging in the park raped than carry firearms, they would rather see you shot than to see you be able to carry a firearm,” said Virginia Constitutional Conservatives founder Chris Anders. “Our founding fathers would be ashamed of us.”
He pledged the “take those seats back” in the county board and General Assembly in 2021.
“We will hold accountable, with your help, any one of the supervisors who vote to create mass killing zones,” Anders said. “We will hunt them down in the next election, and regardless of party affiliation, we the people will take back Virginia, Loudoun County and our God-given liberty.”
The rally also hit on other topics, such as when former state Sen. Dick Black protested taking down Confederate monuments.
Similarly, people on both sides of that debate spoke to supervisors during public input inside the boardroom.
“I’ve been in this room through some of the most contentious issues in this county,” said Mike Taylor. “Not once have I been concerned about someone with a firearm.”
Steve Birnbaum said he works in security for a number of synagogues in the area after experience in counter-terrorism with the Israeli armed forces. And he said while the synagogues usually hold ceremonies in their own spaces, sometimes—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic—they have had to go outside into public spaces, where he said he would be less able to protect congregants if guns were prohibited.
“Anti-semitic attacks are increasing under COVID,” he warned.
One pro-gun speaker caused a stir by reciting a graphically violent fantasy of Briskman dying when a “Black Lives Matter supporter” murdered a person driving with a shotgun, then the driver’s Jeep hit her. Chris Rohland, who was carrying a pistol tucked into his waistband and wearing a sheer veil in place of a mask, was gaveled down and told by Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) that that was not appropriate for the boardroom.
“Juli Briskman is more likely to die in the scenario I just described given the increasingly violent nature of people who hate President Trump, than she is sitting in a county owned government building with no less than two sheriffs present,” Rohland said.
“We are not safer when people carry guns with them all the time everywhere,” said Ami Miller, a volunteer with the Loudoun chapter of Moms Demand Action. “Guns can turn a simple disagreement or misunderstanding into a tragedy. In 2016 in Algonkian Park, a 10-month-old Labrador was shot and killed by a concealed carry permit holder because the dog was off its leash and nearby. The gun owner kept his permit, and today he’s free to visit our parks.”
She also argued against the idea that gun owners are safe and responsible with their guns, citing the three incidents over the past two weeks of accidental discharge including one in which a man injured himself.
“Our opposition would have you believe that we are safer with people like these three carrying guns,” Miller said. “We are not. No one should have to worry about the presence of firearms when they take their kids to a playground, to the library, to a soccer match, or to pay a bill at the county government building.”