GOP lawmakers reject sanctuary cities for humans — but like them for guns

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Republican Reps. Ben Cline, Denver Riggleman, and Rob Wittman don't think Virginia localities should have to enforce any new gun safety laws that are passed.

A trio of congressmen from Virginia have backed a push by gun-rights activists for local governments to simply ignore any new gun safety laws under the guise of so-called "Second Amendment sanctuary" declarations. But the same three have previously backed legislation to punish localities that declared themselves "sanctuary cities" for immigrants.

Even after a horrific mass shooting in Virginia Beach in May, the GOP majorities blocked any gun action. Last month, Virginians elected new Democratic majorities in both chambers of its legislature. Seventy-five percent of that state voters said gun control was a very important issue going into the election, and Democrats ran on commonsense gun safety laws. Now, with the support from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, legislation to do things like require universal background checks and establish red flag protections are likely to become law once the legislature convenes next month.

But before November's results were even certified, leading gun activists announced a scheme to get conservative-leaning localities to simply ignore any new gun laws. As of Friday, 85 of Virginia's 133 cities and counties have approved some sort of resolution declaring themselves sanctuary areas for guns, modeled on similar efforts in other states.

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Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, said last week that these declarations have no legal weight in a state with a strong "Dillon Rule" precedent that made the legislature, rather than the local governments, superior. But in recent days, three Republican members of Congress from Virginia — Ben Cline, Denver Riggleman, and Rob Wittman — all backed the gun-rights protesters and their efforts.

Cline sent a representative to the Staunton City Council last week to endorse the gun sanctuary movement. "By expressing their First Amendment rights to their local city councils and boards of supervisors, Virginians better ensure their Second Amendment rights will be protected in Richmond next month," he said in a statement read aloud at the meeting. "I stand with the people of Virginia's Sixth District and I stand with all of those who defend our beloved Constitution."

Riggleman wrote Friday that as the "gun sanctuary movement is spreading like wildfire, driven by growing concerns that state and local governments will ban guns," he is "now backing the effort" and stands "with all those who are exercising their First Amendment right to free speech on this important issue." In a video message, he urged the Nelson County Board of Supervisors to adopt a gun sanctuary resolution.

Wittman posted on Monday that he also did not believe gun laws needed to be enforced. "I stand with Virginia's Second Amendment sanctuaries," he declared, decrying in advance the "blatant disrespect for our constitutional rights coming out of Richmond."

But the sanctuary movement for guns has been modeled on a similarly named national movement related to immigration. As the federal government has increasingly adopted controversial tactics to enforce immigration laws, localities and even a few states have adopted policies instructing their police forces to focus only on doing their own job, rather than enforcing federal immigration laws.

There is a major difference between the two movements. The federal government, according to longstanding court precedent, may not "conscript state governments as its agents." As such, while Congress can set immigration policies, it cannot require that a local police department round up undocumented immigrants on its behalf. On the other hand, local governments like Virginia's counties and cities are established by the state governments and their police forces are therefore required to enforce state and local laws.

Cline, Riggleman, and Wittman have all previously attacked the sanctuary movement for immigration and have sought to pass various legislation to stop it.

In 2017, Wittman voted for the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, a bill to cut off federal funding to localities that do not cooperate with federal immigration officials. A year later, he boasted of voting for the Securing America's Future Act, which he said would "crack down on sanctuary cities."

On Sept. 20, Riggleman signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill to "provide a civil remedy for individuals harmed by sanctuary jurisdiction policies," allowing citizens to sue local jurisdictions if they are harmed by an "alien that benefited from a sanctuary policy."

And prior to his election to Congress, the then-state legislator Cline didn't just vote for a bill to expressly prohibit Virginia localities from adopting any sanctuary policies, he wrote the bill. (Northam vetoed it, calling it an "unnecessary and divisive" approach.) This June, Cline gave a speech against the United States becoming a "sanctuary nation" for immigrants, claiming that he "stands for rule of law."

None of the three immediately responded to questions about why they would support sanctuary protections for guns but not immigrants.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.