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How can I legally carry a firearm in my car?

Necessary Disclaimer:  The laws governing possession of firearms can be very complex at both the state level and the federal level, and sometimes even at the local level.  There are several circumstances that could disqualify a person from possessing a firearm (e.g., felony convictions, certain misdemeanor convictions, protective orders, etc.). 

Additionally, there are several laws that may restrict the possession of firearms, even if the individual is not otherwise prohibited from possessing a firearm (e.g., firearms are prohibited on almost all federal property, schools or daycare centers, courthouses, private property, unsupervised possession by minors, etc.).  The following article assumes that an individual is not prohibited from legal possession of a firearm and that there are no other legal restrictions involved.  Unfortunately, with ever-burdensome legal restrictions, responsible gun owners must take extra precautions to ensure that they comply with all applicable laws and regulations.  A single article would never be sufficient to encompass such a broad topic.  Hopefully, this article will provide some very general information about a very specific and limited area of the possession of firearms.  This article should not be used as a substitute for individualized legal advice.   The Commonwealth of Virginia has a significant and growing number of responsible gun owners, and Virginia law protects and encourages the right of each individual to keep and bear arms.  When it comes to carrying a handgun in a car, there are several available options.    This article will address the options to lawfully carry a handgun inside a personal, private motor vehicle (e.g., a privately owned car or truck).  This article does not address carrying other weapons in a vehicle (e.g., knives).  This article does not address carrying weapons outside of a vehicle (e.g., walking down the sidewalk).  This article does not address carrying weapons in any other type of vehicle (e.g., a public bus).  This article will only address the lawful carry of a handgun inside of a personal motor vehicle.   Virginia’s concealed weapon statute is found in the Code of Virginia §18.2-308.  As it applies to handguns, this statute prohibits a person from carrying a handgun “about his person” if it is “hidden from common observation.”  The same statute sets forth several exceptions to this rule.  Many of those exceptions do not apply to carrying a handgun in a vehicle, or they are very limited in their application (e.g., law enforcement, certain government employees, etc.).  I will review some of the more common exceptions that people may find useful.    1) Concealed Handgun Permit.  The first, and somewhat obvious, exception to carrying a handgun in a vehicle is if the individual has a valid concealed handgun permit (CHP).  As long as the individual has a valid concealed handgun permit, it is legal to carry a handgun anywhere in their vehicle.  It does not matter where the handgun is located; nor does it matter whether the handgun is loaded or unloaded.  (There are no specific legal requirements regarding the manner in which a handgun must be transported with a CHP; however, safety and security should always be a primary consideration.)     To fall within this exception, the individual must have a valid concealed handgun permit from Virginia; or the individual may have a concealed weapons permit from another state, as long as Virginia honors that state’s permit.  (Note: not every out-of-state permit is honored by Virginia, and vice versa.  Check with the Virginia State Police for the latest updates on recognition of out-of-state handgun permits.)    Note: The terminology is often interchanged: CHP – Concealed Handgun Permit; CCP -- Concealed Carry Permit; CWP – Concealed Weapon Permit.  In Virginia, technically, it is called a concealed handgun permit (CHP)   2) Unloaded and securely wrapped, in certain circumstances.  Additional exceptions are set out in §18.2-308(B), subsections 3, 4, 5, and 11.  Each of these exceptions requires a specific purpose for the transportation of a firearm, and they apply only if “the weapons are unloaded and securely wrapped while being transported.”  The permissible purposes are as follows: travel to or from a shooting range; a regular member of a weapons collecting organization traveling to an exhibition; travel between a person’s home and a place of purchase or repair (i.e., a gun shop or armorer); an enrolled participant of a training course traveling to or from a firearms training location.  Again, for each of these permissible purposes, the weapon must be unloaded and securely wrapped.   3) Secured compartment or container in the vehicle.  The most recent exception to Virginia’s concealed weapon statute is found in §18.2-308(B)(10):  .... 10. Any person who may lawfully possess a firearm and is carrying a handgun while in a personal, private motor vehicle or vessel and such handgun is secured in a container or compartment in the vehicle or vessel…   This exception was added by the General Assembly in 2010.  Under this exception, the individual need not worry about having a “permissible purpose” to their trip.  They do not need to worry about unloading and “securely wrapping” the firearm.  Nor do they need to have a concealed handgun permit.  As long as the handgun is secured in a container or compartment inside the vehicle, it is being legally transported.  (As previously stated, safety and security should always be a primary consideration.)   The next question is this: What does it mean for a handgun to be “secured” in a “container or compartment”?   When the General Assembly originally drafted this section, the proposed legislation required the handgun to be “locked” in a container or compartment.  The governor returned the proposed legislation to the General Assembly with the suggestion that the word “locked” should be replaced with the word “secured.”  The General Assembly agreed with the Governor’s proposal, and the term “secured” was adopted.    Accordingly, one may logically conclude that the term “secured” does not mean “locked.”  Unfortunately, for quite some time after the new exception was enacted, many law enforcement officers, attorneys, and judges were unaware of the legislative history regarding the “locked” vs. “secured” terminology.  It was not uncommon to see people defending against a concealed weapon charge because their glove box was not locked or because their center console did not have a lock.    In May of 2012, the Virginia Attorney General issued a formal opinion which advised that the container or compartment was not required to be “locked” but merely needed to be “secured.”   Then, in February of 2013, the Virginia Court of Appeals decided the case of Commonwealth v. Doulgerakis.   In the Doulgerakis case, the defendant’s handgun was in a closed, latched glove compartment, but the glove compartment was not locked.  He was convicted at trial of possessing a concealed weapon, and he appealed to the Court of Appeals.  After discussing the legislative history of the new exception, the Court of Appeals held that the term “secured” does not mean “locked.”  In Doulgerakis, the Court held that it was not necessary for the container or compartment to be locked.  Rather, it was sufficient that the handgun was in a “closed, latched, and ‘well-fastened’ glove compartment.”   So, after the Doulgerakis case, what does it mean for a handgun to be secured in a container or compartment inside a vehicle?    Well, here are some examples that are clearly NOT secured in a container or compartment:

a handgun underneath a floor mat; a handgun on the floorboard, underneath a seat; a handgun on a seat that is covered by a towel; a handgun in the pocket of a door.   In these examples, the handgun is not secured in a container.  Also, in each of these examples, the handgun is likely “hidden from common observation.”  Thus, each of these examples would likely be a violation of the concealed weapon statute.    Here are some examples that should properly qualify as secured in a container or compartment:

a handgun inside a closed, locked glove compartment; a handgun inside a closed, latched unlocked glove compartment; a handgun inside a closed, latched center console.  In each of these examples, the handgun is secured because the containers or compartments are closed, latched, and well-fastened.  Thus, each of these examples should properly qualify for the exception under §18.2-308(B)(10).   Important Note:  Every case is unique.  Also, §18.2-308(B)(10) is still relatively new.  Therefore, even though a particular situation may seem like it should qualify under §18.2-308(B)(10), a court may reach a different conclusion.    3) Conduct outside the statute:  Open Carry.  It may not be clear at first, but Virginia’s concealed weapon statute does not prohibit all forms of carrying a handgun.  It only prohibits carrying a concealed weapon. Thus, if the weapon is not concealed, it is not a violation of the statute.    As a result, it is entirely legal for an individual to “open carry” a handgun (again, assuming no other prohibitions or restrictions apply).  Indeed, there are a growing number of gun owners that prefer to “open carry” a handgun, rather than carry a concealed handgun (with a CHP).    As it applies to carrying a handgun in a car, the handgun should be clearly visible, not hidden from common observation, and it must be clearly identifiable as a handgun.  For example, a driver may choose to place a handgun on the front passenger seat.  Or, an individual may choose to place a handgun on the dashboard.  In both of these examples, as long as nothing is capable of obstructing a view of the weapon, it would not be a violation of the statute.  (As always, safety and security should be a primary consideration.)     Safety Note:  In terms of firearms safety, it is widely accepted that a loaded handgun should never be transported without a proper holster or a proper case.  At a minimum, a proper holster should completely cover the trigger and trigger guard to minimize the risk of a negligent discharge.  Likewise, a proper pistol case should immobilize the weapon and prevent anything from entering the trigger guard or touching the trigger (this includes foam padding on the inside of a case).  As always, gun owners bear the burden of ensuring that they comply with all of the complex legal restrictions.  Additionally, anyone who carries a firearm bears the inherent responsibility to ensure that they do so safely.  The reader is strongly encouraged to seek qualified and experienced instruction on the safe handling of firearms.     If you have been charged with possession of a concealed weapon, please contact our office for a free consultation.  We can evaluate the details of your case and help you understand all of your options.  You have nothing to lose by calling.   If you have questions about the lawful purchase or possession of a firearm, please feel free to schedule ad advice consult to speak with an attorney.  We will be more than happy to address your specific concerns and help you understand the various legal requirements.    To contact our office today, call (757) 301-3636, or call toll free (877) 214-9640.

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