On Jan. 6, a group calling itself Concerned Citizens of Floyd began circulating on social media a “Militia Muster Call” encouraging local residents to volunteer for an “unorganized militia,” a move which Floyd County Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Branscom said may violate state law.
“Counties can participate or help with a state militia, but it is a state responsibility, not a local one,” Branscom said. “A locality can form a ‘gun club’ or a similar organization but that is not a militia.”
The governor is designated in the state code as the “commander-in-chief” of any state militias. Asked for comment on the potential militia assembly in Floyd, Gov. Northam said, “I would just encourage people that they should feel very safe in Floyd County. From what I’ve seen, I’m not sure that a militia (is) necessary, but that’s something the localities need to make a decision on.” Northam said he would “rely on those local authorities to make decisions on this.”
The flyer advertising the muster cites Virginia code as authorizing all able-bodied residents of the Commonwealth between the ages of 16 and 55 to answer the call to muster at Floyd County Recreational Park this Saturday, Jan. 18 at noon. However, at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 16, the board clarified that it had no authority to issue a permit for such an event, and that no permit had been issued for the group to assemble at the park.
According to County Administrator Terri Morris, who oversees the department of recreation and to whom Director Jacob Agee reports, a permit that was initially issued to the Concerned Citizens of Floyd was “cancelled” due to “a difference in information provided and what was later advertised by the group.” At Tuesday’s meeting, during a report from County Attorney Steve Durbin, Durbin explained that as part of the dissolution of the recreational authority in August of last year, the Town of Floyd agreed to transfer its share of ownership in the park to the county, but this has not yet been done. The town would need to hold a public hearing to complete the transfer.
As such, the county retains only 50% control of the recreational park at this time. “It’s really joint control at this point—the county does not have sole authority right now,” Durbin said. Locust Grove District Supervisor Lauren Yoder clarified, “The only way we could hold an event (at the park) is if the town and county both signed off on it.”
Town Manager Kayla Cox said Tuesday that approval on behalf of the town would be issued by the Council, but the town has not yet been approached by any of the militia muster event organizers. “Since we’ve not yet been faced with an event that size, Council would have to agree,” to let any park use requests be approved using the same form and process as requests for Warren G. Lineberry Park, Cox said, but no such requests have been made.
Beyond the specific militia muster event proposed for the park, Durbin spoke more broadly about the county’s authority with respect to organizing militias, saying, “I don’t see any authority in the code of Virginia…for any locality to organize a militia or anything like that.”
Despite failing to secure a reservation to use the recreational park, Richard Dimmel, a member of Concerned Citizens of Floyd, said people still plan to be at the park on Saturday. “We’re still going to be at the park … Since there is no reservation, we aren’t able to reserve the entire park like we wanted to for the event,” he said. However, he said, “Some of us will still be out there on Saturday because the word has already gone out, so we’ll still be out there, we just won’t be running a formal event. If people want to talk to us about the second amendment and their duties and responsibilities (under that amendment) we’re going to be talking to people about that.” Asked whether he had concerns about using the park without a reservation, Dimmel said “the bathrooms are closed, but as far as I know the park is still open to the public … the park is open to anyone who wants to go out and enjoy it.”
Durbin confirmed that the park is open to the public. “As long as they comply with law … it’s open to the public,” Durbin said. He declined to speculate on how the county may respond if a large crowd shows up on Saturday, but said, “I will say we don’t waive any ability to protect public health, safety and welfare if a function becomes a problem for that.”
This latest event in defense of second amendment rights follows a public hearing on the Board of Supervisors’ resolution to declare Floyd County a Second Amendment Sanctuary, a resolution the board ultimately passed unanimously in December. More than 600 people attended that public hearing at Floyd County High School. The Floyd County Recreational Park can accommodate a maximum of 250 people.
Hunter Crawford, another member of the group, repeatedly stressed that Concerned Citizens of Floyd would make every effort not to violate Virginia code or any local ordinances, and defined the event primarily as educational. He said the group had spoken or met in person with both the Commonwealth’s Attorney and Sheriff Brian Craig to discuss legal issues surrounding the event.
The event intends to “educate the people as to what they legally can do.” For example, he said, “We as the people, do have a constitutional right at this time to assemble, to offer firearms education and to train, not in any attempt whatsoever to attack the government, but people need to understand there’s a very fine line that is easily transgressed.”
Crawford said the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement, coupled with a similar attempt to call a muster in Tazewell County and the introduction of several gun control measures in the Virginia General Assembly, spurred him to get more involved with the cause of protecting gun rights.
Of particular concern, he said, was SB64, a bill that was introduced to penalize “unlawful paramilitary activity,” which is defined as “(assembly) with another person with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons by drilling, parading, or marching with any firearm, any explosive or incendiary device, or any components or combination thereof.” In Crawford’s view, this law, if passed, could target currently lawful and peaceful activities of legal gun owners. “I’m very sympathetic to people that maybe went through trauma with firearms and may not have grown up in a household that taught gun safety,” he said, but called the language of “intimidation” in the bill “very vague” and worried it could “restrict the rights of lawful citizens to possess firearms, which I see as a huge problem.”
The county has repeatedly emphasized that it is not sponsoring or endorsing the event—Morris said both town and county attorneys were consulted on the matter. Crawford, too, confirmed that the event was not being supported by the county. “We’re not stating at all that the county or town sponsors this event, and that’s very crucial in ensuring we can have this peaceful assembly and not be shut down by the county by false claims,” he said. These comments came while the group’s reservation application was still actively being considered by the county.
Crawford did not dismiss the possibility that the county may endorse a local militia in the future, however—and said that possibility is one reason the Concerned Citizens group is going to such lengths to follow the law and consult with local officials. Asked what comes next following the event on Jan. 18, Crawford said it’s not up to the citizens, but the county officials. “If you recall with the sanctuary movement and the comments made by the Board of Supervisors… it’s not legal, it’s not binding, but they vowed in their words that they would not uphold any unconstitutional gun laws,” he said. “If this is to grow anymore than just a peaceful gathering of individuals, and may have county involvement, it has to have a legal basis.”