Why the last Democrat in the Va. legislature endorsed by the NRA says he now backs gun control efforts

By: - June 16, 2019 11:30 pm

State Sens. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and John Edwards, D-Roanoke, sit together during a meeting of the Senate’s Courts of Justice committee, which hears gun legislation. The two lawmakers are the last Democrats standing in the chamber who once opposed gun control legislation. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, is the only Democratic lawmaker in the General Assembly who was endorsed by the NRA during his last election.

It was controversial in his district at the time, coming a month after an on-air shooting that killed a reporter and photojournalist working for a television station in his district.

But Edwards — who joined with Republicans in the wake of the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech to block universal background check legislation and went on to support a repeal of Virginia’s signature one-handgun-a-month law in 2012 — once again stood by the NRA.

He says he can’t anymore. Over his past four years in office he quietly shifted from either not voting on or opposing most gun control legislation that came his way to backing the entire slate of proposals put forward by Gov. Ralph Northam this year, including the one-hand-gun-a-month law he helped overturn.

“The NRA’s attitude was always the same,” Edwards, a 75-year-old lawyer and former Marine, said. “You can’t do anything. Nothing can be done. But something has to be done.”

His break was gradual, he said – driven less by a single event and more by a growing sense that the tide of violence was rising and the NRA was only becoming more strident in its resistance to any reform.

It mirrors a broader shift among Democrats in a state where opposition to new gun control measures was once assumed key to winning rural areas.

A memorial honoring the victims of the May 31 Virginia Beach shooting stands near the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on June 5, 2019 in Virginia Beach. Eleven city employees and one private contractor were shot to death in the Municipal Center Operations building by engineer DeWayne Craddock who had worked for the city for 15 years. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Contrast Democratic Sen. Mark Warner’s successful run for governor in 2001 with Terry McAuliffe’s in 2013. Warner promised to oppose any new gun control legislation and flooded Southwest Virginia with blaze orange “Sportsmen for Warner” stickers and signs. McAuliffe stated flatly during a debate that he “could care less what grade I get from the NRA.”

At least one Republican pundit at the time called McAuliffe’s position a “disaster” for his campaign.

But McAuliffe likely knew he wasn’t taking a risk, said longtime Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth: “It wasn’t simply political courage going against the tide, it was McAuliffe knowing he could say that and it would be a positive.”

Holsworth says part of that comes down to a shift in the way Democrats win elections in Virginia – Republicans have solidified their hold on rural areas where Democrats were once competitive and pro-gun positions are more popular.

Public opinion has changed, too, he said, and opposition to gun control legislation is more likely to hurt a Democratic politician than help. (During his campaign in the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary, former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello faced intense criticism for his past relationship with the NRA, which endorsed him and donated money to his previous congressional campaigns.)

“Virginia has been ground zero for two of these mass shootings,” Holsworth said. “I think that while the NRA and others argue that gun control laws wouldn’t have stopped them, the public is more receptive to certain kinds of what I would call modest restrictions, and that’s given the Democrats, like Edwards, some opportunity to shift their positions.”

Former Del. Albert Pollard, a Northern Neck Democrat who, like Edwards, was once endorsed by the NRA, agrees. And, like Edwards, he says the organization hasn’t done itself any favors in recent years.

“It’s hard for today’s younger activists to believe, but at one point in time, the NRA was not a partisan organization,” he said. “They’ve clearly drifted into the fringe.”

Edwards recalls his first introduction to the NRA as a child through its gun safety and marksmanship programs. These days, he considers it more of an arm of the Republican party.

“I think they’ve lost touch and a lot of their members don’t realize how strident they’ve become,” he said, citing the NRA’s opposition to, among other things, legislation that would allow local governments to ban firearms from municipal buildings or from local government meetings. “The NRA opposes that. It doesn’t infringe anyone’s rights. It just prevents someone from bringing a gun in and intimidating people.”

Does he see any parallels to his evolution on the issue to his counterparts on the Republican side of the aisle, who hold a narrow majority in the General Assembly? Not really. And like some other advocates, he isn’t holding out much hope that the July 9 special session Gov. Ralph Northam called to address gun control legislation after the Virginia Beach shooting is likely to yield any grand compromise.

“I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “Probably nothing if nothing gets out of committee, and nothing probably will the way the committees are designed.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.