COURTHOUSE — A divided City Council — following in the footsteps of more than 100 other local governments around the commonwealth — this month passed a resolution voicing support for the Second Amendment amid backlash to efforts by the new Democratic majority in the Virginia General Assembly to enact gun reform.
The vote on Monday, Jan. 6, was held eight months after a gunman killed 12 people and wounded four others at Building 2, which is next door to City Hall at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. The 6-4 decision came about during a special meeting that had been called by Mayor Bobby Dyer specifically to hear public comments about and discuss and vote upon the matter.
During the work session, Dyer noted that citizens are living in challenging times and must confront issues such as Second Amendment rights, and he said passing a resolution “might give comfort” to people.
“This is an issue that this council is not going to be unified on and also that a number of other people are not going to be unified on,” Dyer said.
“It’s a topic that, one way or the other, we have to confront,” he said moments later.
The City Council ultimately followed an approach similar to that in neighboring Chesapeake, which passed a resolution under the banner of “Second Amendment Constitutional City” rather than “Second Amendment Sanctuary City” others have adopted.
The latter uses loaded language from political immigration discourse.
During an afternoon work session, some members of the council expressed concern about the logic and necessity of the measure, which involves the U.S. constitution and essentially comes in response to political change at the state level and laws that have not yet been enacted. Those concerns were reiterated when the council neared its vote that evening.
But public support was overwhelming then, with speaker after speaker supporting the resolution. Gun rights advocates turned out in unprecedented numbers — as they did for a council meeting in December, a showing that influenced the decision for council action. Such large turnouts have been reported around the commonwealth.
These shows of solidarity by gun rights supporters have been spurred by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, an advocacy organization, and, here, a local Facebook group run by Vincent Smith, a city employee who has opposed a city policy preventing municipal workers from having weapons at work.
There were at least several hundred citizens present at Virginia Beach, many wearing orange stickers supportive of gun rights. People filled the council chamber and the lobby downstairs, and they packed the lawn at City Hall, where the political campaign of Republican Ben Loyola, seeking the party nomination to run for the 2nd Congressional District, set up a large screen and speakers so people could watch the meeting inside.
Much of the discussion of the City Council’s feeling about the matter took place prior to the evening meeting. During the work session that afternoon, Dyer opened up the meeting for comments.
There was a pause.
“Anybody?” Dyer said.
City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, who holds an at-large seat, stepped into the breach, noting that it was important to support all of the amendments.
“We take an oath of office to support the Constitution, and all its amendments,” she said.
“Right,” Dyer replied. “You know, I think we would concur with that.”
City Councilmember Sabrina Wooten, who represents the Centerville District, raised questions about whether the public had enough time to discuss the matter. She also asked why the council felt it necessary to single out an amendment to the Constitution they had sworn oaths to obey.
“I did that when I took my oath of office,” she said. “I would not see us doing this for every amendment in the constitution. … I’m not sure I understand how this is going to change anything. We’re not going to change the Second Amendment. People have a right to bear arms.”
City Councilmember Aaron Rouse, speaking of the mass shooting this past year, discussed addressing a divisive issue in that context. He said there are families, victims and city personnel who may not agree with the measure.
“Yet here we are less than a year — eight months, exactly — from this tragedy discussing a topic as divisive as this in the midst of a healing community,” said Rouse, who holds an at-large seat. “It worries me.”
City Councilmember John Moss, who holds an at-large seat, noted that many Americans have given their lives to defend the Constitution.
“I do agree with the mayor that a pro-Constitutional (approach) is the common ground,” Moss said.
“It is an emotional issue,” Moss added. “I couldn’t agree more. As a matter of fact, you can’t probably talk to either extreme on a rational basis because it’s so emotional, and I can understand why. And it probably always will be. But the common ground which everyone should say is that we agree that there is a constitutional right.”
That doesn’t mean the right is absolute, he noted, referring to court cases on the matter.
“Whatever they do do,” he said, speaking of the General Assembly, “we can be rest assured somebody is going to go to court over it.”
Rouse noted that adjudication in a court of law is something over which the City Council has no authority. The resolution holds “no weight,” and he said he wondered how it helped the city.
City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District, said the body has had hundreds of emails on the topic, essentially asking whether they support the Constitution.
“That’s why I think the emotions are so high and divisive,” Henley said. “It’s judgment. It’s judgment of each person based on where we stand on this one issue, whether or not we support the Constitution. And that’s not good.”
Henley said she has read and reread the Constitution in recent weeks. She noted that a goal is domestic tranquility.
“And we don’t have that right now,” she said. “But anyway, this is not about whether or not we support the Constitution, and I think that’s the divisiveness and that’s why we shouldn’t be doing this. The emotions are so high, the way this particular thing has been brought to us, the way all of this is worded. Our role is to support the Constitution. Our role is not to interpret it.”
That night, the vote was 6-4 to pass the resolution. Dyer, Moss, Wilson, Vice Mayor Jim Wood and Councilmembers Jessica Abbott and Michael Berlucchi voted in favor. Henley, Rouse, Wooten and Councilmember Louis Jones opposed it. City Councilmember Guy Tower, who represents the Beach District, was not present but wrote that he opposed the resolution on social media.
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