Visitors can carry guns openly in Virginia parks

Activists waited a long time for change

A long-standing prohibition on openly carrying guns in Virginia state parks is set to officially end Monday, a victory for gun rights advocates after a protracted political battle that spanned four administrations.

More than a year in the making, the state code is being changed after Gov. Bob McDonnell in January 2011 ordered the Department of Conservation and Recreation to stop enforcing the regulation banning guns from parks.

The section has been part of the code or department regulations since at least 1965, and likely since the state park system was created in 1936, according to state documents.

Republicans for a decade have sought to clarify whether the state has legal authority to enforce gun bans and were supported by opinions from two GOP attorneys general — one of them being Mr. McDonnell.

“This was just a lingering issue from the previous administration that was on the radar of the folks at the Department of Conservation and Recreation,” McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell said. “The governor made the decree a year ago to allow this. The [regulations] that we’re going through now are just catching up to policy.”

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said changing the regulation carries more significance than a mere letter or directive because it will make it more difficult for future governors to undo.

“We’re glad to see that formally done,” he said. “When McDonnell got in, we got some things fixed that should have gotten fixed a long time ago.”

He pointed to a bill that allows concealed handgun permit holders to carry guns into restaurants that serve alcohol, as long as they don’t drink. The bill was signed into law by Mr. McDonnell in 2010 after measures were vetoed by Democrat Tim Kaine, Mr. McDonnell’s predecessor, the previous two years.

Concealed carry of guns, which requires a permit, was already allowed in Virginia parks. Permit holders have to be at least 21 years old, demonstrate proficiency with a gun and undergo a background check.

People 18 and older in Virginia who can legally own a gun can carry one openly in the state without a permit, as long as it’s visible and holstered. But they were not allowed to bring a gun into a state park. Repealing that regulation affects a significantly larger swath of the gun-owning population because there are far more legal gun owners than concealed-carry permit holders.

Mr. McDonnell in overturning the ban cited the 2008 legal opinion he issued as attorney general saying the department lacked the authority to enforce the regulation. An earlier opinion, issued in 2001 under Randolph A. Beales, concluded that the department had the authority to regulate concealed weapons in state parks.

In 2002, Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, a Republican, issued an official opinion concluding that the department exceeded its authority by banning the concealed carry of handguns by valid permit holders.

As governor, Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, told the department to amend the regulation in line with the opinion, and the amendments allowing concealed carry became effective in February 2003.

But open carry was a different story, Mr. Kaine said.

Mr. Kaine in 2009 disregarded Mr. McDonnell’s legal opinion and instructed the department to continue enforcing the open-carry ban.

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