WASHINGTON — When Congress passed the landmark background check legislation known as the Brady Bill back in 1993, two Virginia Republicans were among the 54 GOP lawmakers in the U.S. House who voted to send the bill to President Bill Clinton’s desk.
They were: ex-Reps. Herbert Bateman and Frank Wolf. Four Virginia Democrats voted against it: ex-Reps. Owen Pickett, Norman Sisisky, Lewis Payne and Rick Boucher.
Gun control politics have shifted dramatically in Virginia and across the country over the past 26 years. Democratic lawmakers have become increasingly willing to support tougher federal gun control laws, while congressional Republicans have repeatedly blocked efforts to restrict access to firearms after recent mass shootings.
“The tribalism has just gotten more and more deeply ingrained across the board and I think the [National Rifle Association] has been brilliant in solidifying their base and intimidating them,” said Patrick Griffin, who worked on the Brady Bill as the White House congressional liaison during Clinton’s first term.
In February of this year, when the U.S. House approved an even tougher background check bill for firearm sales, none of Virginia’s four House GOP lawmakers voted for the legislation, which won a total of only eight Republican votes.
All seven Virginia House Democrats voted in favor of H.R. 8, which would require federal background checks on all gun purchases, including private transactions. The law currently only requires background checks on sales from federally licensed gun dealers. About one in five U.S. gun sales are conducted without a background check, according to the advocacy group Brady Campaign.
Virginia lawmakers will dive into the contentious gun control debate again next week.
House and Senate leaders vowed to make gun violence a top priority following the back-to-back massacres in El Paso and Dayton in early August. Calls for reform continued following another mass shooting in West Texas on Saturday.
Virginia Republican Rep. Ben Cline of Botetourt serves on the House Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to vote this month on a bill to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, “red flag” legislation to allow courts to seize firearms from people deemed threats to themselves or others, a bill to prohibit people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from possessing firearms and a ban on assault weapons.
Cline, who touts his “A+” rating from the National Rifle Association, isn’t likely to endorse any of those measures. His spokesman declined to comment on whether he might support any of those efforts.
Spokespersons for Virginia’s other Republican members of the U.S. House — Reps. Rob Wittman, Denver Riggleman and Morgan Griffith — did not respond to requests for comment about what, if any, additional gun control legislation they might be willing to back. Wittman indicated support for strengthening background checks last month, the Prince William Times reported.
While major gun control reforms will likely clear the House Judiciary Committee and could pass the Democratic-controlled House largely along party lines, they face a much steeper climb in the GOP-controlled Senate.
There, Republican senators have suggested they aren’t willing to support the types of sweeping changes Democrats and gun safety advocates argue are necessary to curb gun violence.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “is famously stubborn,” Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat who represents the 8th District in Northern Virginia, told the Mercury this week. And with Republican opposition in that chamber, “it’s really hard to see how you get to 60” votes needed to pass legislation, he said.
But while Beyer said he isn’t optimistic that gun reforms will be enacted this Congress, he’s hopeful. “I tend to run with high hopes and low expectations.”
Although Republican politicians have been reluctant to back legislation on the issue, recent studies have shown overwhelming public support for tougher background checks.
“I think America is way ahead of the politicians on this, especially the Senate Republican politicians,” Beyer said.
Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a freshman Democrat who represents northern Virginia’s 10th District, said gun control is “becoming more of an issue that people vote based on.” She saw it herself during her 2018 campaign, she said, when she unseated a Republican incumbent. “I did not run away from this issue.”
She said there’s been a shift on gun control in districts like hers with large suburban components. “When kids are afraid to go to school and a child comes home from their first day of kindergarten and says, ‘My place to hide is behind the backpacks,’ that’s concerning.”
Other Virginia freshmen Democrats who flipped Republican seats in 2018 have also embraced major gun control reforms.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Elaine Luria of Norfolk and Abigail Spanberger of Henrico both supported the House universal background checks bill, and they both back legislation to ban assault weapons.
Luria has signed on as a co-sponsor of H.R.1296, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2019, according to her spokesman. Spanberger is also listed as a co-sponsor.
“We should implement universal background checks and pass legislation to keep weapons of war off our streets,” Luria said in a statement. “I encourage everyone to keep the pressure on Senate Majority Leader McConnell to take up the commonsense gun measures passed by the House. It is a dereliction of duty to do nothing while our communities live in fear of the next mass shooting.”
Both Luria and Spanberger are also co-sponsoring legislation to incentivize state red flag laws.
Christian Heyne, the Brady Campaign’s vice president of policy, sees Virginia as a “bellwether state” for gun control policies. The state is particularly important in the debate given the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 and the fact that it’s home to the National Rifle Association’s headquarters, he said. More recently, a mass shooting killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building on May 31. And in 2017 a gunman targeting Republican congressmen practicing in Alexandria for a congressional baseball game seriously wounded U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
“Virginia is a changing state,” Heyne said. “It happened slowly over time. They’re on the precipice of long-term change on this.”
Heyne pointed to Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner as a symbol of the state’s shift.
Warner has said he regrets his 2013 vote against legislation banning military-style assault weapons and is co-sponsoring an assault weapons ban this Congress. He’s also co-sponsoring S. 42, the Senate version of the House-passed background check bill, and he has called on Congress to consider red flag bills.
“We owe it to the victims and families affected by gun violence here in Virginia and across the country to take commonsense steps to prevent future tragedies. Frankly put, we simply cannot accept these periodic mass shootings as our new normal,” Warner told the Mercury in a statement.
Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine is also co-sponsoring the background checks and assault weapons ban bills.
Kaine said in a statement that although there is bipartisan support for red flag laws — or Extreme Risk Protection Orders — “they will only be fully effective if passed alongside universal background check legislation to help ensure that people prohibited from having a firearm under ERPO laws cannot purchase a firearm online or at a gun show.”
Kaine added, “If Majority Leader McConnell finally holds a vote on the House-passed universal background checks legislation, I’m optimistic senators would listen to the vast majority of their constituents and vote to make their communities safer.”
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called legislation to incentivize state red flag laws an “ineffective cop out.” He said Democrats “are not going to settle for half-measures so Republicans can feel better and try to push the issue of gun violence off to the side,” the Hill reported.
Beyer said red flag legislation is “more plausible” politically than universal background checks or an assault weapons ban.
“The danger is that it becomes really watered down and only does a fraction of what you want and everybody says, ‘Oh, we solved that problem.’” He added, “On the other hand, any incremental step in the right direction, I think I have to be grateful for.”
Beyer said he expects gun control politics to continue shifting in his state and around the country.
“If you call me in 2029, I think we’ll be in a very different position in terms of gun safety in America, in a much better position.”