PEARISBURG — A loosely connected band of Western Virginians is urging their home localities to consider undertaking an unusual measure to buffer themselves from potential laws and policies they argue will further marginalize the Commonwealth’s conservative regions.
They say the localities should revisit an idea that several of them passed on more than 150 years ago: Join West Virginia, a state that itself was formed after a collective of Virginia counties during the Civil War realized that they didn’t exactly share the same values as the rest of the Old Dominion.
The move, dubbed Vexit by its supporters, appears to have some early support from some West Virginia lawmakers, who last month introduced a resolution that would invite certain Virginia counties and cities to be admitted to the Mountain State.
Joseph McClung, a more than 50-year resident of Giles County, is a proponent of the idea. This past week, the 70-year-old Norfolk Southern retiree went before Giles and Tazewell counties’ boards of supervisors to make the plea.
McClung, who wears a red Make America Great Again cap, voiced displeasure with gun control and the representation of rural and lower income regions.
“The election laws in this state are corrupt, they cater to the rich,” he told Giles supervisors on Wednesday. “We will never have a governor, attorney general, lieutenant governor from this part of the state, ever.”
McClung took issue with business magnate and current Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, who many Virginia conservatives such as McClung have claimed is attempting to control the state with his money and influence.
McClung also directed criticism at Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who McClung argued doesn’t seem to have the best interests of Western Virginia at heart. McClung referred to the Virginia state flag, which depicts the Roman deity Virtus standing over a defeated tyrant.
“Well, who’s the bad person in the eyes of the governor? Us,” McClung said.
Perhaps the biggest driving force behind the recent call on certain counties to break away from Virginia is the now Democrat-controlled General Assembly’s effort to tighten gun control laws.
Gun control bills filed before the start of the current session sparked a series of statewide movements, beginning with calls on numerous localities late last year to declare themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries. While largely symbolic, supporters of sanctuaries said the designations aimed to send a more effective message against legislation that they argued undermined Second Amendment rights.
The gun rights movement most recently manifested itself last month when more than 20,000 people, many openly carrying firearms, converged in Richmond to peacefully protest gun control legislation.
While the gun control bills were proposed in an effort to try to reduce the chances of deadly shootings, gun rights advocates have argued that access to firearms is the most effective way to defend against criminals and mass shooters. Gun rights advocates have also voiced concerns about the proposed legislation criminalizing law-abiding firearm owners.
McClung, who wore a black T-shirt of Kentucky’s Knob Creek Gun Range on Wednesday, agrees with the notion that increased gun control doesn’t necessarily translate to better safety.
McClung said he views guns as the first line of defense against a tyrannical government. He said he believes mass murders would happen regardless of guns because some people will still find a way to harm others.
McClung said he views citizens arming themselves or using other weapons as among the best ways to combat mass shootings.
“As soon as those guys go on the defense, they commit suicide,” he said in an interview this past week. “That’s the best way to combat them. Make them kill themselves by fighting back.”
McClung said that being a West Virginia resident would allow him to avoid stricter gun laws that he argues could affect his safety.
Rick Boyer, a Campbell County-based attorney and a supporter of some Virginia municipalities leaving the commonwealth, said the Second Amendment debate has truly driven the call on some localities to secede.
“The oversimplified answer is the assault on the Second Amendment coming out of Richmond,” he said. “The whole western half of the state has realized that we’re not represented anymore.”
Boyer said the sanctuary movement was a good way for pro-gun supporters to make their voices heard, but the declarations carried little to no legal weight.
“A sanctuary makes us feel good, but it has very little force against state law,” he said. “If you were to come to West Virginia, then it doesn’t really matter what Richmond does.”
Vexit’s and legal hurdles
Vexit, of course, is a play on Brexit, the nickname for the United Kingdom’s decision via a 2016 referendum to leave the European Union.
The Vexit issue most recently received more widespread attention when West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., both staunch conservatives, appeared together in a press conference late last month to voice their support of Virginia counties breaking away and joining West Virginia.
They each criticized some of the ongoing measures being pushed by Democrats in Virginia’s General Assembly.
Boyer, however, said the call for Virginia counties to leave the state precedes the comments from Falwell and Justice.
The comments from Falwell and Justice echoed some of the language in West Virginia’s Vexit resolution, which shed light on the debate about whether Western Virginia has been fairly represented by its own state.
Boyer said the campaign he’s involved in began organically about two weeks ago when he handed out fliers during the gun rights rally in Richmond.
Right now, Boyer said, there is an all-volunteer plan to assemble an advisory council comprised of attorneys and both current and former elected officials. He said the council will explore the process of how Virginia counties can legally break away from the Commonwealth and join another state.
Boyer said he’s heard from several attorneys who have already voiced interest in joining the council.
Another of the campaign’s objectives is obtaining signatures for petitions that would be forwarded to boards of supervisors in hopes of getting Vexit proposals on the Nov. 3 ballot, Boyer said.
Those interested in signing petitions can visit the campaign’s website at www.vexit2020.org, Boyer said.
Despite the hopes of Vexit supporters, seceding from Virginia would require several steps, each of which could be quite complex. Some municipal officials are also raising doubts about whether a referendum at the local level can be created.
The secession of a county or city would require approval from the Virginia and West Virginia legislatures and Congress, said John Harrison, a University of Virginia School of Law professor and an expert on constitutional law.
“There’s a way to do it, but the counties can’t just do it on their own,” he said. “It has the three steps, although again, if everyone wanted it to happen, it would happen easily.”
Giles County Administrator Chris McKlarney and County Attorney Richard Chidester, in interviews following McClung’s comments Wednesday, echoed Harrison’s point.
McKlarney and Chidester, however, each said that they haven’t found a provision in Virginia law for a referendum on whether a county can secede from the state.
“An interested citizen or the board of supervisors could solicit signatures from registered voters in the county to place this question on the ballot. Typically a referendum of this nature would require signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters in the county,” Chidester wrote in a memo to Giles supervisors following several inquiries about Vexit.
However, Chidester said it’s unclear whether a successful referendum would hold up in circuit court where a judge could decline it on the grounds that it’s not permitted by statute or charter.
Then if a judge somehow approves the referendum, there’s a chance the State Board of Elections could contest the referendum on the grounds that it’s not permitted by statute or charter, Chidester said.
“There’s all kinds of implications I don’t think everybody’s thought of,” he said.
Chidester said a secession, among other major changes, would require the county to enter a new federal court district and would affect the constitutional offices.
Giles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ricky McCoy said he understands where Vexit supporters are coming from with their concerns about the current direction of state government. However, he said, he’s not sure leaving the state is the answer for addressing issues with the General Assembly.
“Change needs to be made by changing the representation, not leaving the state you’re in,” he said. “In a democracy, you work to change your representation.”
Some secessions precedents
West Virginia was granted statehood in June 1863 after a group of counties in the western part of Virginia at the time opposed the Commonwealth’s decision to secede from the Union.
Chidester’s recent memo to supervisors delved into some of the other events surrounding West Virginia’s creation.
In 1862 and 1863, the Virginia General Assembly adopted several acts permitting voters in more than a dozen counties to decide if they wanted to join West Virginia. Giles was among those counties, Chidester said.
Most of the counties, including Giles, never joined West Virginia because the Virginia General Assembly repealed the 1862 and 1863 acts and there was apparently never any vote approving the transfer of those counties, Chidester said.
Maine gained statehood — breaking away from Massachusetts — as a result of 1820’s Missouri Compromise, which was enacted to maintain the balance of power in Congress. The Compromise, repealed about three decades later, admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state.
In contemporary times, there were 11 counties in Colorado that in 2013 attempted to secede from the state for some of the same reasons currently raised by Vexit supporters. The Colorado effort, called the 51st state initiative, failed early in the process when voters in six of the counties rejected the secession referendum.
Ike Huffman, 76, lives just across the state line in Greenville, West Virginia, but works in Giles County’s Rich Creek, where he owns and runs Ike’s Barber Style Shop.
Huffman said he thought Justice and Falwell were kidding about the secession issue. Huffman, however, said he doesn’t want to see Second Amendment rights infringed upon.
“It wouldn’t bother me either way,” he said. “I already pay taxes in both states.”
Richard Dimmel of the Concerned Citizens of Floyd was involved last month in a muster of the “Unorganized Militia of Floyd County,” an event staged to rally opposition to gun control proposals.
Dimmel said the event was also used to remind the public about a provision in Virginia law that allows the governor to call on an unorganized militia — mentally and physically able residents between ages 16 and 55 — during times of dire emergencies.
Dimmel said he opposes the currently proposed gun control measures out of a fear that it would disarm residents and make it difficult for the governor to call on an unorganized militia if needed.
“You can’t give someone a mission and not allow them to have a tool to successfully accomplish the mission,” Dimmel said. “For a militia, the tools are weapons, capable weapons. Not single shot rifles or double barrel shotguns.”
Dimmel said those capable weapons include the controversial AR-15 rifle.
While he doesn’t have a strong stance on secession, Dimmel said, he thinks it’s an option to consider given some of the proposed gun control legislation.
“I think it’s a potential solution,” he said. “It’s certainly better than turning millions of Virginians into felons.”
Dimmel’s comment on felons echoes a widely held concern among gun rights advocates about how some of the previously proposed gun control legislation appears to contain no grandfather clause for currently law-abiding firearm owners.
A string of various gun control bills have cleared the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates over the past month. Some of the bills would ban firearms from certain areas, restore a repealed law that caps handgun purchases to one per month and expand background checks to all firearms sales and commercial transfers.
A measure that has drawn staunch opposition from gun rights advocates is proposed legislation to ban assault weapons and expand the definition for assault weapons.
The legislation was amended to get rid of that provision, as well as eliminate a proposal that people register the assault weapons currently in their possession. The main feature now is a ban on high-capacity magazines.
Staff writer Sam Wall contributed to this report.