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Court hears gun arguments

Guns – in two different contexts – were a major topic for the Supreme Court of Virginia today.

In two cases, the court revisited Virginia Code § 18.2-53.1, the statute that provides for a mandatory penalty of three years for using a firearm in a violent crime.

The issues, as they have been in earlier cases, are whether the statute applies when a suspect pretends to have a weapon and threatens a victim but doesn’t actually display it, or displays what appears to be a firearm, but the “weapon” won’t actually fire a shot.

In the first case, Courtney v. Commonwealth, Record No. 100776, police found a toy gun in the suspect’s car, and in the second, Startin v. Commonwealth, No. 100778, the “firearm” was a replica of a .45-caliber pistol with a missing firing pin.

Earlier Supreme Court cases have suggested that the key to a conviction under the statute is the threat of a firearm that places the victim in fear rather than the nature of the “weapon” itself.

“We may have decided cases that we have locked ourselves” into that position because the focus of those cases has been the display of the firearm rather than the nature of the weapon, Justice Donald W. Lemons commented at one point.

The second context involved a Second Amendment challenge to a regulation at George Mason University that bans weapons in dormitories and in classrooms but permits the open carry of weapon in more public places on campus.

Rudolph DiGiacinto, arguing pro se, contended that the state has not granted GMU the authority to enact such a regulation, which is also at odds with the state and U.S. Constitution, especially in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, DiGiacinto argued.

Heller held that a blanket ban on firearms violates the U.S. Constitution; McDonald held that the Second Amendment applies to states as well as federal enclaves.

Virginia Solicitor General Duncan Getchell acknowledged those two holdings but emphasized that the Supreme Court also said states may continue to regulate carrying firearms “in sensitive places.” College dorms and classrooms are just such locations, he said.

“Lots of interesting issues are going to come up,” he predicted, “but this isn’t one of them.”

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