Virginia Governor McDonnell order OKs of openly carrying firearms in State parks:

By Jim Nolan
Published: January 20, 2011

RICHMOND, Va. -- It is now legal to openly carry firearms in Virginia's state parks, and state forests are likely to be next.

The change results from an order issued late last week by Gov. Bob McDonnell directing the Department of Conservation and Recreation to cease enforcement of the ban.

In a letter to Conservation and Recreation Director David A. Johnson dated Jan. 14, McDonnell said he relies on an opinion he issued in 2008, when he was attorney general, on whether the department had authorization to enact a ban.

McDonnell's opinion, according to his letter to Johnson, concluded that it was not the intention of the General Assembly to "further restrict the carrying of firearms in public parks."

The opinion was requested by then-Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican who now holds McDonnell's former job of attorney general.

Then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, did not agree with the opinion, and the ban remained in effect while Kaine was in office and until Friday.

But now McDonnell, a Republican, is in charge, and his order conforms state policy to his legal opinion.

"Lacking specific legislative authorization to further regulate firearms, the Department of Conservation and Recreation cannot promulgate a regulation that does so," the governor's letter states.

Previously, firearms could be taken into parks as long as they were concealed and the carriers had permits to do so. McDonnell's order opens up the parks to the open carrying of weapons.

McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said the governor also has given initial approval to a proposed regulatory change allowing concealed carry and open carry by law-abiding residents in state forests. He said those proposed regulations are going to the public-comment stage.

"These regulations, once finally approved, would simply allow law-abiding Virginians who legally own a firearm to exercise the same rights in a Virginia state forest or state park that they already possess while elsewhere in the commonwealth," Martin said.

The action was cheered by pro-gun groups.

"The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and other agencies have promulgated all kinds of obscure open-carry bans around the state affecting certain Wildlife Management Areas, all National Forest land," Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League said in an e-mail message to supporters.

"Governor McDonnell ordered parks to make this change, and VCDL thanks him for doing so."

Gun-control advocates were dismayed by the change.

"Allowing open carry in state parks could be extremely detrimental to tourism," said Lori Haas of Virginians for Responsible Gun Laws. Haas' daughter was wounded in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech.

"How would a family with young children feel if in the campsite next to theirs is an AR-15, an automatic weapon, an assault rifle? This action allows anyone to open carry in state parks. Concealed carry is more than sufficient."

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Reporter Olympia Meola

contributed to this report.