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Virginia gun control fight sparks rush to join 2nd Amendment sanctuaries movement

A contentious fight over gun control measures in Virginia is prompting hundreds of counties and localities around the country to declare themselves "Second Amendment sanctuaries."

The national movement is growing momentum as the newly-elected Democratic legislature in Virginia plans stricter actions against guns, including universal background checks and "red flag" laws that would allow officials to seize guns from people considered to pose a threat.

The push has sparked a strong reaction by those who support gun rights. Tens of thousands gathered in Richmond last week to protest against the planned action, while at least 91 out of 95 counties in Virginia have declared themselves "sanctuaries" against gun control laws passed by the state.

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Other localities around the country are now joining Virginia, even in states such as Mississippi that are not contemplating gun control measures. At least 83 counties nationwide have declared themselves as Second Amendment sanctuaries this month, following at least 131 last month, according to a count of local media reports conducted by The Hill.

They join hundreds of other localities that have already made the declaration, growing a movement that takes its name from cities that have declared themselves as "sanctuaries" for undocumented immigrants, providing protection against the stricter immigration laws enforced by the Trump administration. 

“When a state starts denying the constitutionally protected rights of its citizens, then it is completely legitimate for officials at lower levels to step in and protect citizens,” said Erich Pratt, the senior vice president of Guns Owners of America.

Gun Owners has served as a leading national organization of the movement, helping localities draft legislation as well as organizing citizen petitions.

Localities declaring themselves as sanctuaries hail from a broad range of states, from those seen as having stronger protections for gun owners such as Kentucky and Texas to those seen as having stricter gun control laws such as Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon.

Just this week, DeSoto County became the first county in Mississippi to pass a resolution protecting itself against gun control laws, declaring itself a Second Amendment "safe haven" to avoid the connotation of the word sanctuary with the immigration movement. 

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State Rep. Dana Criswell (R) provided the petition to the DeSoto County government, saying he did so after multiple constituents asked for it.

“It is 100 percent driven by the events that are happening in Virginia,” Criswell said. “That has really scared people that events like that – they see gun owners there under a very direct attack.”

The declaration is raising the potential of legal challenges, and is being widely denounced by advocates of gun control. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) warned counties that state law enforcement officers are obliged to enforce state laws.

Kris Brown, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, called the trend a “dangerous marketing campaign,” where the locality attempts to overrule any current or potential state laws.

“They’re a political gimmick intended to make people believe that efforts to enact entirely constitutional gun safety regulations somehow create an infringement of the Second Amendment, which is untrue,” she said.

Brown added it was “troubling” that the counties were attempting to reverse the results of the Virginia election, calling the efforts “a backdoor attempt that would undermine the will and the vote of Virginians.”

Nonetheless, more counties are looking to join the Second Amendment sanctuary movements, including Gaston County, in North Carolina.

County Commissioner Chad Brown said the county will vote Tuesday whether to become a Second Amendment sanctuary, in a resolution he co-sponsored.

Brown said the resolution stems from a concern that “the left will try to come after us” and chip away at the foundation of the Constitution, including the Second Amendment.

The Gaston County commissioner said that besides the events in Virginia, former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s promise to “take your guns” sparked an “awakening” and a bigger push to defend the amendment.

O'Rourke, a former congressman from Texas, became a prominent gun control advocate after a high-profile shooting in his hometown of El Paso.

“We look at a house, and we chip away at just the foundation, eventually it's going to crumble,” Brown said. “And I don't want that to happen on my watch. I love this country.”