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Virginia’s Dillon Rule Continues to Frustrate Falls Church on Gun Laws

FALLS CHURCH CHIEF of Police Mary Gavin (at podium) spoke to the Falls Church City Council Monday, flanked by a contingent of “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.” (Photo: News-Press)

The Falls Church City Council expressed considerable frustration at its meeting Monday night over the long-standing constraints it faces on limiting gun use in the City because of the so-called Dillon Rule. The 1868 rule, which prevails in Virginia, prohibits local jurisdictions in the state from adopting laws that are not specifically permitted by the state.

The Dillon Rule has in recent years been a thorn in the side of Northern Virginia jurisdictions whose leaders seek more progressive solutions than the state government in Richmond, still top heavy in representation by more rural and conservative parts of the state, has allowed.

But this is changing, and the next round of state legislative elections in 2019 could, if they follow the pattern of 2017 and flip still more legislative seats from Republican to Democratic (15 in the House of Delegates were flipped in 2017), then area jurisdictions, including the City of Falls Church, may be far more able to seek legislative relief that will allow stricter gun control laws, for example, than are permitted now.

So it is in this context that the Falls Church City Council is looking to adopt revisions in the City code recommended by City Attorney Carol McCoskrie to remove sections that, technically, currently violate the Dillon Rule. While it may appear at first blush that the City would be softening its stance on guns, the reality is that the “clean up” of the City code is being proposed to better prepare the City for when it can lawfully tighten things up.

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Complicated? Sorry. But McCoskie has crafted an ordinance “that would delete existing provisions that the City is prohibited from enforcing because they have been rendered invalid by state legislation,” she wrote in a preface to her proposal that the Council mulled in its meeting Monday.

The removal of 15 sections of the City code means they are still enforceable by the local police department through state code provisions, so that the City’s action will not have a practical effect on law enforcement in the City, McCoskie wrote.

So the provisions all contained in Section 28 of the City code will be deleted, but the occasion this Monday was cause for a large turnout of “Moms Demand Action (for Guns Sense in America),” wearing red shirts to the City Council meeting, a contingent that included at least one dad.

Moreover, Falls Church Police Chief Mary Gavin came to the podium to field questions on gun safety in the City where, surprisingly, the role of toy guns became a major point of discussion.

Council member Ross Litkenhous brought up the issue of “realistic looking toy guns,” and Chief Gavin responded that they “represent a real threat to officers” because the mere sight of them is “scary,” and also because they are often used in actual crimes.

Gavin underscored the importance of parental supervision to limit the impact of these guns in the community.

What is included in the proposed ordinance is a prohibition against firing a pneumatic gun in any area of the City, pneumatic meaning any implement, designed as a gun, that will expel a BB or a pellet by action of pneumatic pressure, including paintball guns that expel by action of pneumatic pressure plastic balls filled with paint for the purpose of marking a point of impact.

This does not apply to their use in facilities approved for shooting ranges or on private property with the permission of the owner, and any minor under 16 must be supervised by a parent, guardian or adult supervisor.

Gavin said that there have been three toy gun incidents involving police in the City in the last year in the context of a total of 75 weapons that were taken off the streets by City police in the last five years. Many were confiscated during traffic stops on suspicion of DUI or drugs, she said.

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Council member Letty Hardi, whose initiative has led to the current action, said it is “pathetic” how little power the locality has to enforce reasonable gun laws, but that she hopes for “a major turnaround in the General Assembly in Richmond.”

One added step the new ordinance does permit will make it unlawful to transport a loaded shotgun or rifle on streets, roads and highways in the City because the General Assembly specifically granted localities the authority to enable this legislation.

Councilman David Snyder noted the irony of current laws permitted under the Dillon Rule, which, he said, “specify broad exclusions for the use of BB guns, while allowing wide ownership of far deadlier weapons.”

The Council will bring the proposed ordinance for a vote at its Dec. 10 meeting.

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