Pro-Gun Groups, Residents Sue Roanoke City Over Law Banning Firearms on Public Properties

Roanoke became one of several cities and towns to restrict firearms in public places after a 2020 state law.

Roanoke became one of dozens of cities and towns to restrict firearms in public places — such as at the municipal building, above — after the General Assembly in 2020 allowed municipalities to do so. PHOTO BY HENRI GENDREAU FOR THE ROANOKE RAMBLER

Pro-gun groups and residents are suing Roanoke City over local laws that ban firearms on certain public properties.

They argue that Roanoke’s prohibition of guns in parks, public buildings and at permitted events — such as parades and festivals — violates a part of the Virginia constitution similar to the Second Amendment.

Roanoke became one of several cities and towns to restrict firearms in public places after the General Assembly in 2020 allowed municipalities to do so.

The lawsuit was brought by Virginia Citizens Defense League, Gun Owners of America, Gun Owners Foundation and three local individuals: Maynard Keller Jr., Kameron Hamlin, and Mark Smith. Filed Jan. 12 in Roanoke City Circuit Court, the case asks a judge to find the city’s laws are unconstitutional and stop the police chief from enforcing them.

“Self-defense is a pre-existing natural right, and Virginia’s constitution legally protects self-defense through the use of firearms,” Gilbert Ambler, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said in an email. “There is nothing special about parks and permitted events that justifies the removal of this right for otherwise law-abiding individuals in these locations.”

State lawmakers passed several gun control measures starting in 2020, a year after Democrats took control of the legislature following a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building.

In that case, a city engineer fatally shot 12 people and injured four others before police killed him.

One of the state laws to emerge gives cities, counties and towns the power to restrict the possession of firearms and ammunition in local government buildings, public parks, recreation centers, and on public streets or any other place where a permitted event is being held.

Following an impassioned public debate, Roanoke City Council in March 2021 decided to enact such a law locally in a 6-1 vote, with Councilwoman Stephanie Moon Reynolds in the minority.

The law also put an end to gun shows at the city-owned Berglund Center.

Council later amended the law to include offices run by the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority after it requested a firearm ban.

“While our office does not typically comment on pending litigation, I do believe the City, and the Commonwealth of Virginia in adopting the enabling statute … have acted in an appropriate and constitutional manner,” Roanoke City Attorney Tim Spencer said in an email.

Violation of Roanoke’s law is considered a Class 1 misdemeanor, which in Virginia carries a penalty of no more than 12 months in jail and/or a fine of no more than $2,500.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether anyone has been charged with violating the law; police spokeswoman Caitlyn Cline did not respond to an email Monday.

The lawsuit says members of the gun groups have previously gathered in local parks in Virginia “not only for self-defense but also as a form of political speech.”

The individual plaintiffs say they use Roanoke parks and want to be able to carry guns.

“I am aware of incidents of violence directed toward Jewish individuals, including a massive rise in antisemitism, which is one of the reasons that I carry a firearm to protect myself and my family,” Keller said in a written statement included in the court records.

Keller ran unsuccessfully for Roanoke City Council as a Republican in 2020 and 2022.

“I reasonably fear arrest and prosecution if I am caught carrying a firearm in a City park, or at a permitted event or event otherwise requiring a permit, due to Roanoke’s Ordinance,” Keller wrote in a phrase echoed by the other plaintiffs.

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