Is it ‘A Solution Looking for a Problem’ in Fairfax City?

City enacts new firearms ordinance

Virginia recently adopted legislation allowing localities to enact ordinances prohibiting firearms and ammunition in and on certain public properties or at permitted public events. And last week, Fairfax City took advantage of this opportunity to do just that.

But it didn’t do it lightly or without careful consideration of the new law’s possible ramifications. City Council members discussed the ordinance at an October work session, a January meeting and last Tuesday’s public hearing.

They also read emails from City residents expressing their opinions on the issue, listened to more citizen comments during the Feb. 9 hearing and consulted with City Attorney Brian Lubkeman. And even then, they still disagreed on some points and made amendments to each other’s motions.

But in the end, they came together and passed an ordinance they believe will be in the best interests of the City and its residents. It prohibits firearms in buildings owned or used by the City, in the City’s public parks, and in any recreation facility or community center owned or operated by the City.

This ban includes trails, sidewalks, and parking areas within public-park boundaries. And while there are certain exemptions, there are none for people holding concealed-carry permits. Violators of this ordinance could be convicted of a Class 4 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $250.

The new City ordinance is effective immediately, but full enforcement won’t happen until the appropriate notices and signs are posted, where required. Go to https://www.fairfaxva.gov/ for a list of all the locations where the firearms prohibition will apply.

AT THE OUTSET of the public hearing, Councilmember Sang Yi had questions about whether the ordinance would apply to color guards. “Their rifles are blank, but could be readily converted to live ammunition,” he said. “And I doubt that anyone wants to prohibit them.”

He also wondered if the responsibility for security measures, such as installing metal detectors inside public buildings, would rest solely on the city manager. His questions were among a multitude asked by the Council members. For example, Yi also wanted to know if the City’s police officers are trained to detect concealed weapons on people.

Police Capt. Natalie Hinesley replied that the officers get this training “through experience and observation.” However, she added, “Police couldn’t approach them about [having a possible, concealed weapon] unless there was suspicion of some other crime.” She also noted that police would require training on the new ordinance.

Over the past 10 years, Fairfax police received 109 total calls for service dispatched as “weapons violations or brandishing a firearm.” Six of them gave the location as City-owned buildings or parks, and four listed Lanier Middle School.

But, explained Hinesley, “The majority of the 109 calls weren’t weapons violations. At Lanier, two of the calls were about BB guns, one was a social-media post and the other was a verbal threat. But they all came out as ‘weapons violations.’”

Councilmember Janice Miller asked if, besides City buildings, the ordinance would include, for example, the City Hall and Sherwood Community Center grounds. Lubkeman said it would not include those outdoor areas.

In the proposed ordinance, asked Councilmember Jon Stehle, “If I have a license to carry concealed and I’m walking on the sidewalk around Old Town Square, I’m not in violation of the ordinance?”

“That is correct,” answered Lubkeman. “But [doing that] during a public event might put you in violation.” Stehle then asked how people would know what’s in and out of the gun-prohibited area, and Lubkeman said, “You’d have to have a number of temporary signs.”

Councilmember Tom Ross asked if the ordinance could be passed with a “sunset provision, with a specific date for a review, to see if the ordinance is working.” Lubkeman said the Council could do that for either a review or repeal of the ordinance.

Parks and Rec Director Cathy Salgado said the City issues a dozen or more permits/year for large, special events, such as the Fall Festival, Rock the Block and the Fourth of July Parade. In addition, it issues hundreds of permits annually for picnics in the City’s park pavilions, plus 20-30 more permits for church and nonprofit gatherings at Old Town Square and other City locations.

“These special-event permits are reviewed by City staff and police to determine the level of service they’d need,” explained Salgado. “They include, for example, the Ride of the Patriots or a CROP walk.”

Ross asked if the ordinance would apply to these smaller events, as well. “We’d need to look at large City-managed events vs. smaller, private events and see how it applies,” said Lubkeman. “But it would apply to events within City Parks.”

During the public hearing, eight callers phoned in to the online meeting to give their views. The first speaker, Richard Burns, opposed the ordinance. “You’re attempting to solve an imaginary problem that doesn’t exist,” he said. “It’s an infringement of our basic rights. People who have guns have already been vetted, and you don’t have the right to revoke that right.”

“Oppose this misguided ordinance and don’t proceed,” said Christina Pratt. She wondered “why, all of a sudden, there’s a problem,” and contended the City would be punishing “responsible, legally permitted, law-abiding citizens. This ordinance is a solution looking for a problem and is totally unjustified.”

Describing himself as a military veteran and a concealed-carry permit-holder, Andrew Pratt said the ordinance would be of no benefit. “If someone wants to commit a criminal act with a gun, no law is going to stop them,” he said. The result, said Pratt, would be citizens losing their right to protect themselves against criminals.

VIRGINIA’S ENABLING LEGISLATION would have allowed Fairfax to bar weapons and ammunition “in any public right of way used by or adjacent to an event requiring a permit,” such as large festivals and parades. It would have also charged violators with trespassing – a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.

Doing so, said Andrew Pratt, could impact that person for life. “We’d lose our permits and never be able to get them back,” he said. “There’s no provision in the ordinance for asking concealed-carry holders to leave the premises, instead of charging them with trespassing.”

Judy Fisher, however, asked the Council to vote yes to prohibit guns in public areas and during large City-sponsored events, calling it crucial to ensure attendees’ safety. “The naïve idea and wishful thinking that concealed-carry permit-holders provide a measure of safety has no basis in fact,” she said. “We have virtually no control over who obtains [these] permits, and they’re not always responsible gun owners.

“More guns don’t make us safer; that’s obvious by the number of guns in the U.S. and the level of gun crimes. Pass an ordinance which enhances our safety – as several of you have acknowledged that the majority of Fairfax City citizens favor. I urge you to respect the will of the people.”

Ethan Kauffman said the ordinance “makes it difficult for the average gun holder to travel through the City when he may come across an unexpected event, such as a protest. Agreeing, Mark Graff said such people with no criminal intent could end up accidentally violating the law. Trice Burgess also said the ordinance isn’t needed in Fairfax, and Matt Greenfield said the ordinance needed overall clarification.

Miller then made a motion to adopt the ordinance, but Stehle amended it to delete the section barring weapons from public rights of way adjacent to public, City-managed events, and Councilmember Joe Harmon seconded, citing this section’s ambiguity. Agreeing were Councilmember So Lim, Yi and Ross. Leaving it in, said Lim, “would make innocent individuals – in the wrong place at the wrong time – be unlawful.”

Yi also made a motion to change the trespassing penalty in this context from a Class 1 to a Class 4 misdemeanor, with no jail time and a smaller fine, and the Council approved this measure, as well. In addition, Miller made a motion to exempt from the ordinance educational events and programs, historical re-enactments, color guards, plus events involving weapons unloaded or loaded with blanks. This motion passed unanimously.

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