General Assembly bill highlights division over firearms | |

General Assembly bill highlights division over firearms

By Jen McCaffery
The Virginian-Pilot
© January 26, 2008
Del. Lionell Spruill Sr. doesn’t think it’s a good idea for legislators to carry firearms in the Capitol Square in Richmond –even if those lawmakers, himself included, have permits to carry a concealed weapon.

“We really get heated on the House side, and you never know when an accident might happen,” Spruill said recently. The Chesapeake Democrat said he knows some fellow lawmakers who carry weapons in the Statehouse, but he didn’t offer any names.

Earlier this month he introduced legislation to make carrying a firearm in the Capitol or nearby state office buildings a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail or $2,500 fine.

On Friday, however, Spruill pulled back the bill, HB1277, saying it doesn’t have enough support to become law.

“The bill won’t get to the floor. I know they’d kill it. It’d never get out of committee,” he said.

Spruill is not the only South Hampton Roads legislator who has a permit to carry a handgun.

Sen. Kenneth Stolle and Del. Bobby Mathieson also have concealed handgun permits, in part because they got used to carrying them when they worked as Virginia Beach police officers.

Sen. Frederick Quayle,

R-Suffolk, got a handgun more than 25 years ago, when he was working late nights at his law office and felt the need for protection.

In all, at least one-third of South Hampton Roads’ 24-member delegation have concealed-carry permits.

Spruill said he obtained a gun and the permit in 2004 at the encouragement of friends who were hunters. But he has reconsidered that decision after watching deer hunting on television.

“After I saw those guys shooting that stuff on TV, I said, 'No way,’” he said.

The presence of firearms in the Statehouse shouldn’t surprise people, some legislators say.

“It’s reflective of all of Virginia,” said Del. Kenny Alexander, D-Norfolk, who also has a concealed weapon permit. “It’s not just rural white men.”

As of Jan. 5, there were 149,984 active concealed weapons permits in Virginia, according to Sgt. Michelle Cotten of the Virginia State Police. Almost 3 percent of all Virginians 21 and older have the permits, a comparison of police and state census figures shows.

In most parts of the Capitol or the General Assembly buildings, anyone with a valid concealed weapon permit can carry a handgun, said Lt. Randy Howard of the Virginia Capitol Police.

“It’s not a lot of people, but there are people who come in on a regular basis,” Howard said, adding that the only ban is in the Senate viewing gallery, where even concealed weapons aren’t allowed.

Legislators are allowed to bring firearms into the General Assembly building regardless of whether they have a concealed handgun permit, Howard said, by virtue of a decision in 2004 by the joint Rules Committee. ***Law only allows permit holders to bring weapons.

“We don’t check them,” Howard said.

The reasons local legislators obtain a concealed weapon permit are as varied as their politics.

Delegates Chris Jones,

R-Suffolk, and Algie Howell Jr., D-Norfolk, both say they have them because they’re business owners.

Twenty-one years ago, Jones said, he was held up at gunpoint at his drugstore, Bennett’s Creek Pharmacy in Suffolk. He pulled his .38-caliber revolver from under the counter and shot the woman once in the shoulder. She recovered and was later convicted.

Howell said, “I’ve been an owner of a business for 35 years, and there’s times when I take sums of money from it, and I carry a gun for my protection.”

[B]Howell said he doesn’t take his gun to Richmond because there’s no need. ***Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha !!!!!!!!

Mathieson applied for his permit after he left the Beach Police Department in 2002. “It’s just something that I’ve always maintained,” he said.

Stolle, another former Beach officer who has had a concealed weapon permit on and off ever since he left the Police Department, said, “Carrying a handgun used to be far more important to me when I was younger.”

Stolle, who owns a 9 mm semiautomatic, said he couldn’t remember the last time he carried a concealed weapon. It may have been a few years ago after he was threatened, he said. The senator said he hasn’t brought a handgun into the General Assembly building.

Del. Johnny Joannou,

D-Portsmouth, has a permit, but said he rarely carries a gun – and never on the House floor. Joannou said he sometimes puts a handgun in his vehicle’s glove compartment when he’s traveling.

Quayle said that these days, taking his Colt along is a judgment call.

“If I feel like I could conceivably need some protection, I’ll take it,” he said.

Circuit Court records also show that Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, has a current permit in his home jurisdiction.

“That’s a personal issue for everyone who carries a permit and, I’m not going to comment on it,” Cosgrove said.

Staff writers Warren Fiske, Aaron Applegate and Marc Davis contributed to this report.

Jen McCaffery, (757) 446-2627,