Gun-related questions became focus of Wilt and Runion’s pre-session town hall

Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, spoke to the crowd at the Bridgewater Municipal Building Monday night about issues heading into the 2020 General Assembly that starts Jan. 8. Wilt and Delegate-elect Chris Runion of Bridgewater (standing, right) held the joint town hall meeting.

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

Questions about balancing gun safety and the rights of gun owners dominated Monday night’s town hall hosted by two area Republican legislators, Del. Tony Wilt of Broadway and Delegate-elect Chris Runion of Bridgewater.

In fact, the first question of the night following the legislators’ brief introductions was about how the two lawmakers would protect hunter’s rights while keeping firearms away from terrorists and people with mental illnesses.

Wilt, who in November was re-elected for a fifth time, and Runion, who won an open seat straddling Rockingham and Augusta counties, both told the more than 80 people who filled the seats in the Arey Assembly Hall at the Bridgewater Municipal Building that they will prioritize funding to help people with mental illnesses.

Wilt also said training law enforcement so officers can be better equipped to handle calls involving people with mental illnesses also could be part of the solution.

“What we’ve come to realize over the last number of years is that just grabbing somebody up and putting them in jail is not the answer,” Wilt said. “That’s not what they need, they really needed help.”

Another audience member followed up, asking if either legislator would allow someone with paranoid schizophrenia to hold a gun. Runion said laws are already in place to prevent that from happening.

“I do not support letting people with mental illnesses have guns,” Runion answered. “The issue is treatment of mental illness.”

Runion added that the appropriate allocation of resources would address those mental health concerns, citing issues such as dwindling space for patients at mental health facilities and services that end too soon.

Delegate Tony Wilt (R-Broadway, left) and Delegate-elect Chris Runion discuss issues with their constituents ahead of the 2020 General Assembly.

The town hall offered a chance for constituents in Wilt’s 26th District and Runion’s 25th District to ask the legislators about issues before the 2020 General Assembly convenes Jan. 8 as well as for the lawmakers to outline their priorities. While some of those issues ranged from real estate taxes to land use control, questions about potential gun control bills kept coming up.

Such questions followed the wave of Virginia counties and cities that have proclaimed themselves as “Second Amendment sanctuaries” through resolutions. The Rockingham County Board of Supervisors, for instance, declared the county a sanctuary at a Dec. 11 meeting.

The resolutions say it’s the will of that local government body that the community wouldn’t have to enforce gun laws passed in Richmond, although Attorney General Mark Herring issued an opinion earlier this month saying such measures have no legal standing. 

The push came after Democrats won a majority of the seats in Virginia’s House and Senate in the November elections, and some Democratic lawmakers have pre-filed bills addressing background checks for people seeking to buy guns, restricting the purchase of certain high-capacity assault weapons and other regulations Democrats say they hope will curtail gun violence, including mass shootings like the Virginia Beach attack in May that killed 12. 

In an interview with The Citizen earlier Monday, Wilt said that he believes the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement should have an impact when considering those legislations during the upcoming General Assembly session.

“I would hope that the attorney general, the governor, the legislators would take that into consideration and say: ‘look this is an important issue to a lot of citizens across the state as they ponder legislation,’” Wilt said.

At the town hall, Rockingham County resident Tony Cave expressed his concern over being able to carry a firearm from the county into another area that is not a Second Amendment sanctuary.

“If Harrisonburg is not a sanctuary city, but Rockingham County is, and I ride in with one of my guns, do I get arrested?” Cave asked.

Runion responded by reminding him that no laws regarding the Second Amendment have changed.

Bill Faw, who lives in the 26th District, asked the legislators about their willingness to reach across the aisle on certain issues — particularly gun laws — during the 2020 General Assembly session.

“Would you just automatically vote against whatever the Democrats put up, or would you go along with different aspects of a bill if it’s agreeable to you?” Faw asked. “Are you prepared to reach across the aisle, or will we have clashes with this newly aligned senate and house?”

Wilt said that ultimately, bipartisanship would be a priority when considering legislation during this upcoming session.

“The name of the game is to keep moving forward,” Wilt said. “You don’t do that by drawing lines. If we have a problem, we can’t just back up and never solve that problem.”

Other key concerns Wilt and Runion’s constituents raised during the meeting included what’s next for the I-81 corridor improvement plan, which Wilt currently oversees through the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

Although Wilt said he was optimistic about the pending improvements, both he and Runion encouraged citizens to take their concerns about the interstate to members of Congress for support at the federal level.

“I-81 is not just a local issue,” Runion said.

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