Roanoke has banned guns from city-owned parks, libraries and offices as well as from municipal recreation centers and events in public spaces.
Gun shows eventually will be prohibited at the city-owned Berglund Center, though an event already under contract can go forward, specifically Saturday’s Roanoke Valley Gun Show, City Attorney Tim Spencer said.
In addition, the gun prohibition will cover parades, political marches and similar gatherings that require an assembly permit to be held on city property or public rights-of-way, officials said. Some exceptions will apply.
The Roanoke City Council approved the guns ban in a 6-1 vote Monday, with Stephanie Moon-Reynolds voting no. Public comments before the vote appeared to lean in favor of seeing the city restrict guns at a time of spiking gun violence in some neighborhoods.
Before enforcement begins, the city intends to post signs at affected locations, which could take weeks, and conduct a program of public education, said Spencer said. Those who run afoul of the new law will likely receive only warnings initially, Spencer added.
“We’d like to do this in a way that is reasonable as far as ensuring the public is aware that, ‘Here, I can’t have my firearm,” Spencer said.
With the ordinance newly adopted, Spencer said he would need additional time for research to determine all locations affected.
For instance, the Jefferson Center, a municipal building, is under the auspices of a tenant that has declared the building a “weapons free facility.” It's unclear how the ban would apply there.
The Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport is owned by a governmental commission to which the city appoints the majority of the members. The airport prohibits guns in its secure area, though no signs restrict guns in the public terminal area before the security turnstiles or in the parking lot.
Guns were already prohibited at such places as the Oliver W. Hill Justice Center, the official name for the city courthouse, the Roanoke City Jail and city schools.
At its core, the measure prohibits "the possession, carrying or transportation of firearms, ammunition or components" in buildings owned or used by the city or any governmental agency created by the city. The ban would also apply in the city’s 72 parks, plazas and natural areas; on the Roanoke River Greenway; inside recreation centers and community centers owned or operated by the city or by its governmental subunits; and at the Noel C. Taylor Municipal Building.
Once full-blown enforcement is underway, a person suspected of breaking the gun law could be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor. A judge can sentence a person convicted of this most serious of misdemeanors to up to one year in jail and levy a fine of up to $2,500.
Roanoke did not ban firearms from city streets and sidewalks.
That said, guns would be banned on streets and municipal alleys and sidewalks while they are in use for a permitted event. Under an exception, the city plans to permit event participants to possess unloaded firearms in certain circumstances. This clause was intended to accommodate such groups as marching bands or veterans on parade.
In addition, the ban won’t apply to firearms displayed in museums or carried by living history reenactors as long as they unloaded. In addition, the ban won't apply to police officers, on-duty members of the military or security guards working for the city.
The Virginia General Assembly last year granted local governments across the state the power to restrict guns. The council’s action followed years of discussion of the issue.
Members of the public were required to register in advance to speak and to comment through an audio link. The meeting, for which council members gathered at the municipal building, was closed to the public because of the pandemic, City Manager Bob Cowell said.
Before the vote, more than 30 people spoke.
Opponents of the gun control measure said it would do little good to restrict guns when those with ill intent won’t comply. “Where is the data that shows the effectiveness of gun free zones,” asked Maynard Keller, who ran unsuccessfully for council last year.
“This ordinance is going to accomplish a false sense of security,” said a woman who described herself as a frequent user of city parks. The gun she carries, she said, “gives me peace of mind.” It was not possible to confirm her name Monday night.
Supporters of the ban urged action. “The more guns in the city, the more gun violence,” said a man. “No more gun shows.”
Joining the call for restriction was Andy Parker, father of slain WDBJ journalist Alison Parker, who told the council he challenged the notion that armed citizens increase safety. “When was the last time, quote, good guys with guns stopped a bad guy?” he asked. “If it happened you’d see it in the news all the time, but it doesn’t.”
Mayor Sherman Lea recalled a mass shooting in 2019 at a Virginia Beach municipal building that he said "terrified" residents of the state. He recalled his pledge soon after to try to ensure nothing similar happened in Roanoke using an ordinance "that prohibits firearms at least coming into this building."
The city will have the power to increase security to enforce the ban, including through the use of metal detectors or greater use of security guards, according to language of the ordinance.
Council member Trish White-Boyd said the comments she heard and the email she received split 67% for restricting firearms and 33% opposed.