**Update** This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the judge’s order applies only to SafeSide Lynchburg for the time being.
A circuit court judge in Lynchburg, Virginia has overturned a portion of Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order that declared indoor gun ranges “places of amusement” that are non-essential and must shut down during his state of emergency, at least at it applies to the Lynchburg range that brought the lawsuit. Judge F. Patrick Yeatts declared in an order on Monday that Northam’s actions are likely to have exceeded his constitutional authority, and declared that the portion of the governor’s executive order on essential businesses that deals with indoor ranges not be enforced against SafeSide Lynchburg while the litigation continues.
Yeatts noted in his decision that the Virginia state constitution declares that “the body of the people, trained to arms is the proper, natural safe defense of a free state.” Since that is the case, clearly the right to bear arms includes the right to train with them. Since gun ranges provide a place where that training can take place, they are protected under the right to keep and bear arms.
The judge agreed with Gov. Northam that he has great deference in times of emergency, but stated that a Virginia law passed in 2012 (and supported by Northam, who was a state senator at the time) prohibits the governor from taking any action, even in a state of emergency, that interferes with the right to keep and bear arms.
Northam had argued that under an intermediate scrutiny standard of review, his closures should be upheld. Yeatts declined to do so, noting that there under any standard of review the governor isn’t likely to prevail in his defense, but pointing out that if he had to decide on what level of judicial review to use, he would have gone with strict scrutiny, given that “proper training and practice at a range… is fundamental to the right to keep and bear arms, even necessary for the self-defense concern expressed by the governor.”
The governor also argued that economic concerns “are not enough and that outdoor gun ranges provide a sufficient alternative to indoor ranges.” SafeSide Lynchburg, the indoor range that brought the lawsuit along with the Virginia Citizens Defense League, Gun Owners of America, and the Association of Virginia Gun Ranges argued that they would suffer irreparable harm if they were not allowed to re-open, and Judge Yeatts agreed. The judge also noted, however, that it wouldn’t just be the range owners who would suffer. There are no outdoor ranges located in Lynchburg, and in fact the city has an ordinance that prohibits the firing of guns outside of approved gun ranges. As Yeatts wrote, “the Court rules that the right to keep and bear arms is not relegated to the outskirts of the city and of fundamental rights jurisprudence.”
Unfortunately, the judge’s order only applies to SafeSide Lynchburg, at least for the time being. VCDL president Phillip Van Cleave says the group is weighing their legal options with the goal of getting every indoor range in the state re-opened for business.
The governor will almost certainly appeal Judge Yeatts decision, but for the moment, SafeSide Lynchburg will be resuming operations in the near future, and I wouldn’t be suprised if other ranges follow suit despite Northam’s order remaining in effect throughout the rest of the state. The judge made the right call. Let’s hope that the state Supreme Court agrees.