Judge rules Virginia gun range can open amid coronavirus closures

A Virginia gun range must be allowed to open to customers despite a statewide executive order requiring nonessential businesses to close to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a judge ruled Monday.

The order issued by Lynchburg Circuit Judge F. Patrick Yeatts says federal and state protections on the right to bear arms outweigh any emergency authority held by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to order the gun range closed.

The SafeSide gun range in Lynchburg filed the lawsuit challenging the governor’s executive order, along with Gun Owners of America, the Virginia Citizens Defense League and the Association of Virginia Gun Ranges.

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Attorney General Mark Herring’s office had argued that Northam’s emergency powers to protect public safety during a pandemic should be upheld.

Herring, a Democrat, said in a statement that his office is analyzing its legal options.

“Governor Northam’s efforts to save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19 are necessary and proving to be effective, but unfortunately, the gun lobby believes the ability to shoot a gun indoors during this pandemic is worth risking further spread of the virus and making Virginia communities and families less safe,” Herring said.

At a news conference, Northam also said the state will consider its legal options. He emphasized that his goal is to “promote and protect the health and safety of Virginians. ... No particular business has been singled out.”

RELATED: What businesses are considered non-essential under DC, Maryland, Virginia executive orders

Yeatts, in his ruling. said state law limits the governor’s power to regulate guns even in an emergency. He said Virginia’s Constitution includes language that parallels almost exactly the Second Amendment.

“The Governor appears to argue that, when he declares a state of emergency, he can ignore any law that limits his power, even laws designed to limit his powers in a state of emergency,” Yeatts wrote.

Yeatts granted an injunction that immediately allows the range to open, saying the gun range and its customers would suffer irreparable harm with any delay. In particular, he cited the livelihoods of the range employees and the need of gun owners to train with their weapons. He said closing the range is “especially unsettling for new gun owners with no prior firearm experience.”

Yeatts said nothing in his order applies to any other aspect of Northam’s executive order and only applies to the SafeSide Lynchburg facility.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said he is happy the SafeSide range can open, but disappointed the order does not govern gun shops and ranges throughout Virginia. He said his group is talking with lawyers about the best way to get a broader ruling that would apply statewide.

RELATED: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam says business reopenings at least two weeks away

The lawsuit is one of several that have challenged various aspects of Northam’s executive order, but other cases have upheld Northam’s power.

Earlier this month, a judge in southwest Virginia rejected a lawsuit that sought to carve ought a religious exemption to Northam’s executive order.

And in federal court in Alexandria, a Manassas man filed a challenge to the emergency order saying it violated First Amendment protections guaranteeing freedom of assembly. The suit sought an emergency injunction to halt enforcement of the executive order. But U.S District Judge Leonie Brinkema rejected the request, writing that “the only current emergency is the one caused by the coronavirus.”

Another lawsuit filed by a group of fitness centers challenging the governor’s authority impose penalties on businesses that violate his executive order is scheduled for a hearing Thursday in Culpeper County.