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Gov. Northam ordered indoor shooting ranges to close during coronavirus. A gun-rights group is threatening to sue.

Patrons line up outside Bob's Gun Shop on Granby Ave in Norfolk, Va., on Friday, March 20, 2020. Hampton Roads gun shops u201cjammedu201d as sales, background checks spike amid coronavirus (The' N. Pham/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

A gun-rights group is threatening to sue Gov. Ralph Northam for forcing indoor shooting ranges to close to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

While gun shops can remain open as long as they keep patrons to 10 or less and practice social distancing, Northam has labeled indoor shooting ranges as “indoor public amusement” alongside movie theaters and bowling alleys. Under an executive order Northam issued last week, such businesses had to shutter on March 24 and remain closed until at least April 23. Since that executive order was issued, Northam has implemented a stay-at-home order until June 10.

That prompted the gun-rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League to ask Northam to amend his executive order and make shooting ranges exempt from closure.

On Friday, a law firm out of Vienna representing the VCDL wrote to Northam, saying his executive order violated the Second Amendment.

“Although it is certainly true that there are those who visit ranges to shoot as a sport, it is also true that ranges are where Virginians are instructed to, and practice, their skills to use firearms as part of their inherent right to self-defense,” lawyers for VCDL wrote. “The suspension of constitutionally enumerated rights constitutes an ‘infringement,’ both of the right to ‘keep and bear arms’ and the right to be ‘trained to arms.’”

Then came the memo from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Released Saturday, it offers guidance for what the department considers “essential critical infrastructure workers,” and people who work at shooting ranges are included.

So the VCDL sent Northam another letter on Monday, asking him to change his executive order based on the Department of Homeland Security’s new guidance. The VCDL hasn’t received an answer yet.

“Still nothing but crickets,” President Philip Van Cleave wrote in an email to members Tuesday.

The Virginian-Pilot also contacted Northam’s office Tuesday and hasn’t received a response.

In the meantime, Van Cleave said he’s asked the VCDL board of directors to approve a lawsuit and get a stay on the closing of indoor shooting ranges.

“If the board approves, we will move forward quickly,” he told members. He also asked for owners of indoor shooting ranges to participate in the lawsuit and encouraged paying members of indoor ranges to consider “contributing to the fight as soon as we announce that the lawsuit is in motion.”

Van Cleave said over the phone Tuesday he was waiting on one more board member to approve moving forward with the lawsuit. Despite courts being closed for most hearings, Van Cleave said it would be filed as an emergency stay request.

“They’re affecting businesses, we need to make a decision now, we can’t wait six months,” he said.

Most gun ranges in Hampton Roads appear to be adhering to Northam’s executive order.

Freedom Shooting Center in Virginia Beach and Bob’s Gun Shop in Norfolk have temporarily closed their ranges. Their retail stores remain open with limited hours.

Camp Elmore Indoor Shooting Range in Norfolk also closed March 24, according to its Facebook page.

Norfolk County Rifle Range, a private National Rifle Association club, and The Marksman, a firearms training and retail center in Newport News, closed their shooting ranges because of the governor’s order.

Superior Pawn & Gun, which has two shooting ranges in Virginia Beach, has also closed.

C2 Shooting Center in Virginia Beach closed its public range — which is partially outdoors — four days before the governor’s order went into effect. Its private range remains open for official government, military and law enforcement training.

Owner Kent Mote said that, even if the governor were to allow ranges to reopen provided they follow the 10-patrons-or-less rule, it wouldn’t be feasible for him to keep C2 Shooting Center open.

“It’s a social distancing and a disinfecting and a cleaning regiment that would be too difficult in such a vast area,” he said.

He said he would have to space out patrons so they are more than six feet apart, pause shooting for longer periods to thoroughly clean the porous, rubber surfaces found all over the range as well as the guns, door knobs and any other surfaces, and bring on extra staff to monitor social distancing and explain the new rules to customers.

“What is it worth for my staff that have been with me for nine years or more to be exposed?” he said.

Robert Marcus, owner of Bob’s Gun Shop, said he would reopen with limited access to lanes if the governor reverses course on shooting ranges. He said he would make certain that people stay at least six feet apart.

VCDL’s Van Cleave said he hasn’t heard from owners of any shooting ranges saying they wouldn’t reopen even if Northam changed the order.

This isn’t VCDL’s first brush with the Northam administration this year. Thousands of gun-rights supporters rallied in Richmond on Jan. 20 to protest Northam’s push under the new Democratic-controlled General Assembly to tighten gun restrictions. Gun-rights advocates also spoke at nearly every meeting in which firearm legislation was considered, saying the restrictions — most of which passed — violated the Second Amendment.

They also crowded local government meetings, demanding city councils and boards of supervisors declare themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” and not abide by any new gun laws that are unconstitutional.

The closures of shooting ranges come at a time when gun sales are booming as people rush to purchase firearms for self defense. The Pilot previously reported one such firearms dealer, Paul “IB” Dacyczyn, co-owner of Northampton Firearms on the Eastern Shore, saying customers are “concerned things may break down socially, and they need to make sure they have defense.”


© 2020 The Virginian-Pilot