Sunday, January 29Hampton Roads Weekly

Felons: First The Vote. Then Guns.

In his rush to get new Democrats on the voter rolls before the 2016 presidential election, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a blanket order restoring the voting rights of about 206,000 felons.

When the Virginia Supreme Court slapped down this April 2016 move as illegal McAuliffe began churning out restorations one by one.

That was legal.

By the time he left office, McAuliffe had restored the civil rights of approximately 173,000 felons. This meant they could vote, serve on juries and run for political office.

But there were other consequences to McAuliffe’s sweeping move: Those newly enfranchised felons were now free to march into court to ask for the restoration of their gun rights.

Not sure the liberals who supported McAuliffe plumping up the voter rolls saw that coming.

The Washington Post did.

In a May 20, 2016 piece headlined “In Virginia, felon voting rights mean simpler path to gun ownership,” the newspaper pointed out that the governor seemed unaware that he’d made it easier for these criminals to get guns.

“My actions were about giving you the right to vote, to serve on jury and run for political office,” he (McAuliffe) said… “My action, I didn’t think it had anything to do with gun rights. I stayed away from that.”

Perhaps the governor should have thought it through.

The Post noted that at least one state official – Virginia’s Secretary of the Commonwealth – realized there would be a sharp increase in the number of felons seeking weapons. She urged Virginia’s prosecutors to be vigilant:

“The decision to restore firearms rights is solely up to the discretion of local court judges, based in large part on your decision on whether or not to oppose such petitions,” Kelly Thomasson wrote at the time to Virginia’s commonwealth attorneys.

In an interview in late June, the Virginia Beach prosecutor assigned to gun rights cases, Andy Rosenberg, confirmed that his office has seen a noticeable increase in the number of felons seeking to have their gun rights restored.

“They’re up markedly,” Rosenberg told me.

Rosenberg opposes all requests by felons asking for permission to keep a gun.

“We’re concerned about the safety of the community,” he said flatly.

Virginia Beach attorney Robert Herron, who represents many firearm-seeking felons around the commonwealth, agreed that many more felons are now petitioning the courts for their gun rights.

And that’s good for business.

Herron said gun rights cases now represent “a very, very significant portion” of his law practice.

According to prosecutors, 144 felons asked for their gun rights in Virginia Beach last year. Rosenberg reckons that about 66 percent – or about 95 – of those were approved.  By contrast, only 62 felons filed similar petitions in 2015.

Requests are so common now, in fact, that one day a month has been set aside to hear the cases.

Gun Day.

July’s Gun Day was set for the 23rd in Virginia Beach Circuit Court.  August’s is scheduled for the 27th.

Rosenberg’s reliable opposition to the requests is rooted in Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle’s determination to protect the public, he said.

“The biggest problem is an individual with a violent felony,” Rosenberg said. “I had one case where the crime was committed only about five years ago…in a couple of cases, the individual was still on probation.”

Rosenberg says the reasons felons give for wanting to own a firearm are as varied as the crimes they committed. Most say they want to hunt. Others are concerned with self-defense, or want to hold a job that requires them to carry a weapon. Still others are married to someone who needs to keep a service revolver in the home.

For his part, Herron says many of his clients simply want to make a complete return to society. They believe the firearm ban stigmatizes them.   

The unintended consequences of Virginia’s easy civil rights restoration doesn’t end with simple gun rights. Once those are restored, many felons take the next step: They seek concealed carry permits.

“Once you have your gun rights restored you’re basically on the same footing as anybody else asking for a concealed carry permit,” Herron told me.


Kerry is an award winning columnist who spent 33 years at The Virginian- Pilot and 17 years as a metro columnist.

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