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Visitors can carry guns openly in Virginia parks

Activists waited a long time for change

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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.

"Through its explicit authority to maintain the safety of its parks and the power to prescribe rules 'necessary and incidental' to such authority, DCR has implicit authority to prohibit the open carrying of firearms," he wrote in a 2009 letter to Joseph H. Maroon, then the director of the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Mr. Kaine also wrote that the ban was an important part of maintaining safety, citing a survey of 3,000 parks visitors, nearly 80 percent of whom opposed allowing firearms. More than half said they would reduce their visits to parks if people could carry guns.

"I'd much prefer there were no guns carried in state parks, but that seems to be the way it's going," said Andrew Goddard, executive director of the Virginia Center for Public Safety. "It's going to take something serious to happen for people to wake up. Unfortunately, it will be too late for somebody when that happens."

The Virginia repeal is a hard-fought victory for national gun rights advocates. A law on concealed carry saying that national parks will be governed by the same rules as the states in which they are located took effect in February 2010. That means about 370 of the country's 392 National Park Service properties permit visitors to carry firearms.

Since Mr. McDonnell ordered the department to stop enforcing the gun-ban regulations, Virginia officials have not had any incidents directly related to the law no longer being enforced, according to regulatory documents.

"Additionally, some visitors may feel safer as a result of their ability to open carry firearms on the Department's properties," the documents state.

An initial lack of incidents wouldn't be surprising, but the repeal could have insidious effects in the long run, said Mr. Goddard, whose son, Colin, was injured during the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

"Like any time they slacken these laws off, it doesn't immediately turn into a problem," he said. "It just adds to the problem that where there are more guns, there are more deaths."

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