RICHMOND — State lawmakers approved a new gun policy that will prohibit the public as well as its own members from carrying firearms inside the Capitol and a nearby office building where General Assembly members work.
“Our goal has got to be to keep everybody safe,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, the chairwoman of the Joint Senate and House Rules Committee, which approved the policy Friday.
The committee is composed of 11 Democrats and five Republicans, and it voted along party lines to approve the policy. The separate House Rules Committee — which has the same number of Republicans and Democrats — also backed the policy.
The policy will cover the Capitol and the Pocahontas Building, which houses the lawmakers’ offices. The policy does not cover Capitol grounds. It will go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Friday.
The previous policy allowed for gun owners with a concealed carry permit to carry firearms in those buildings.
Under the new policy, the only people permitted to carry firearms in those buildings will be law enforcement, authorized security and military personnel who are on duty.
Signs will be posted at entrances notifying people about the prohibition of guns. Law enforcement stationed at the entrances to the buildings will search and scan with metal detectors everyone besides lawmakers.
It was the first fight over guns between lawmakers this session, which is expected to draw thousands of gun rights and gun control activists to the Capitol in the next couple weeks to lobby lawmakers.
Republicans protested the policy that House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said Democrats “dropped in front of us a few minutes ago” without any public notice.
“You certainly have the votes to do it,” Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said. “But this is not the way to do it. This is not the way to be transparent in Virginia.”
Republicans tried to delay voting on the policy until a later date, but Democrats rejected them.
Democrats said the policy is similar to gun bans at other state capitols, including Alabama and Arkansas. Filler-Corn said the policy change was overdue.
Democrats said the policy recommendation came from Capitol Police.
Capitol Police Chief Col. Steve Pike told reporters that Democratic leadership approached him with a proposal to ban guns, and he provided input on how to implement it.
“This entire effort to put this on the Capitol Police is disgusting,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert said the current policy has been working.
“We’ve never had a problem with that,” he said.
Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, said that was not true. He mentioned a 2017 episode in which Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, forgot a handgun in a General Assembly meeting room. Another senator found it. He also brought up the time in 2006 when then-Del. John Reid, R-Henrico, accidentally fired a gun he was unloading in his office. The bullet struck a bullet-resistant vest hanging on his office door.
It’s unknown how many lawmakers carry firearms at the Capitol.
Pike said legislators receive immunity from prosecution during the session under a law intended to ensure their duties are not disrupted.
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, wouldn’t say whether she’ll continue to carry a gun. She carried one on her hip during the session last year, and she has been carrying one in her purse this year.
“I’m going to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Virginia Constitution so help me God,” she said.
Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, said he at one point carried a firearm after someone approached him in the street and threatened him after work. He said legislators take up hot-button issues that lead to heightened emotions.
“I feel this is egregious. I feel this is an overreach,” Austin said. “All of us are certainly adult citizens. It’s the last thing I want to do is bring harm to anyone, but I don’t want to put myself in a situation for someone to do harm to me.”