Before the short special session on gun control earlier this week, hundreds of gun rights advocates poured into the city block around the capitol and legislative building.
They wore shirts and hats with the National Rifle Association’s logo and sported bright orange “Guns Save Lives” stickers. Some showed up with handguns in holsters. Others carried rifles slung over their shoulders.
They filled House and Senate chambers, hallways and afternoon committee meetings.
And when Republicans abruptly voted to adjourn until November while the State Crime Commission studies proposed gun legislation, it was the Fairfax-based NRA that was the focus of Democrats’ ire.
“The Republicans in this state are totally controlled — I mean 100 percent — controlled by the National Rifle Association. Anybody who doubts that, go take a look where the money is spent and go take a look at their votes,” Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, told The Washington Post.
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, tweeted state Republicans are “bought and sold by the NRA” once the session adjourned.
But the NRA’s money in Virginia doesn’t go very far. Instead, analysts and people who work in Virginia politics say the power of the NRA comes from the sheer number of voters who align themselves with the organization and show up at the polls and in front of lawmakers, especially in solid red districts where politicians’ biggest fear is a primary challenge from the right.
“It’s their capacity to mobilize people at election time, ” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst. “It’s a better strategy to have the grassroots support than it is to pump dollars in.”
The NRA has donated less than a million dollars total to state lawmakers since 1996, the earliest year available through the Virginia Public Access Project.
The NRA has typically given to Republican political action and campaign committees in recent years, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
By contrast, heavyweight utility Dominion Energy spent $11 million and tobacco giant Altria pumped $6 million into Virginia politics in the same time period. Both companies are some of the most prolific political donors in the state.
“The National Rifle Association’s strength comes from our nearly 5 million members and their passion for our Second Amendment freedoms,” said Catherine Mortensen, spokesperson for the NRA. The organization doesn’t provide state membership counts, she said.
There have been some reports that the NRA’s membership is lower than it reports, based on tax documents or magazine subscriptions. Some estimate the organization has inflated its membership numbers by millions. Others estimate membership is flattening out.
Right now, Virginia NRA members are preparing for November’s General Assembly elections, Mortensen said. All 140 seats in the legislature are up for re-election and Republicans hold a small majority in both chambers.
The NRA and two other pro-gun organizations, Gun Owners of America and the Virginia Citizens Defense League, are membership-based and send regular email, text and social media alerts about pending legislation or other political actions. The alerts often call on members to vote or show up on important days, like last week’s special session.
“We’re very focused on grassroots and in fact, that’s kind of our bread and butter,” said Jordan Stein, spokesperson for the Virginia-based Gun Owners of America. “I think it’s more of a constitutional approach to let the voters hold their elected officials accountable.”
Between 1997 and 2013, Gun Owners of America gave $21,000 to Republican politicians and its own PAC.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League, another grassroots group that opposes stricter gun laws, gave $91,000 to various Republican campaigns between 2002 and 2018.
“We don’t have any billionaires laying around who want to contribute,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, mentioning Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun reform group funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That organization has given $4.7 million since 2013 to various Virginia Democratic campaigns, PACs and the state Democratic party.
“We don’t have that kind of money to fight back but it’s not all about money, it’s about getting the right people elected. What we have is grassroots, we have people out there,” Van Cleave said.
Many gun owners are passionate about not changing Virginia’s gun laws and make that the deciding factor when voting, he said. People who want to tighten gun laws typically don’t vote like that, Van Cleave said.
‘They want the A-rating … not the money’
There can be intense political pressure that comes with voting against groups like the VCDL, Gun Owners of America and especially the NRA, Holsworth said.
“Inside the Republican Party, there’s a genuine sense that if the NRA is against you in a primary, that could be very troublesome for a candidate,” he said.
One way the NRA applies that pressure is with its grading system, which rates lawmakers on an A-F scale, like grades on a school project.
The NRA has rarely given any Republican in the state lower than a “C” grade in elections since 2009, according to available ratings. The organization doesn’t have old grades listed on its website, but Everytown for Gun Safety has a list dating back to 2009 for most politicians in the country.
Some grades aren’t available in Everytown’s data because the candidate didn’t fill out the NRA’s questionnaire and didn’t have a voting record.
A perfect grade from the NRA was something Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, touted during a primary against Tina Freitas, the wife of Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper. Tina Freitas, who frequently posted campaign videos while wearing a large revolver on her hip, said Hanger wasn’t conservative enough on issues like abortion and guns. Hanger, brandishing his NRA grade, fended off the challenge.
“I have an A rating by the NRA and am proud to be endorsed by them consistently over the years,” Hanger wrote on his website. “I am also proud to be co-chair of the Sportsman Caucus in the General Assembly.”
Those grades seem to be what drives some Republican lawmakers, said Andrew Goddard, who has spent 12 years lobbying for stricter gun laws at the Capitol. His son was shot four times and survived the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.
“I came to the conclusion that their power or perceived power came from their ability to muster voters who are single-issue who will vote against somebody if they step out of line,” he said. “They want the A-rating from the NRA, not the money.”
In the past, Holsworth said, even prominent Democrats wanted the NRA’s approval. Notably, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner sought NRA support during the 2001 gubernatorial race.
That has since changed and Democrats don’t seek a high rating from the NRA, diluting the influence the organization has outside of the Republican party, Holsworth said.
“I’d like to think they have less (influence) because of their problems with finance and corruption,” Goddard said. “I’d like to think that is going to weaken their situation.”