As Democrats triumph in Virginia, pro-gun groups confront ‘worst scenario’

By: - November 8, 2019 12:05 am

Supporters raise signs for Moms Demand Action and Everytown For Gun Safety during the Democratic election-night party downtown Richmond, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

In a victory speech in Richmond Tuesday night, Shannon Watts, the founder of gun-safety group Moms Demand Action, finished by mentioning a get-out-the-vote tweet from the National Rifle Association. In the video posted a few days before Virginia’s General Assembly elections, a woman in an NRA hat said people who didn’t go vote to protect their gun rights should “pack your shit and git.”

“Tonight, all my thoughts and prayers go out to the NRA’s leaders and lapdogs,” Watts told the jubilant crowd as Virginia’s statehouse flipped blue. “And tomorrow, they can pack their shit and git.”

The prominent gun-control advocates mixed into the lineup of Democratic lawmakers at the election-night party underscored the magnitude of what was at stake for Virginia’s gun debate and the swift change that Democratic rule could bring. On Tuesday’ Democrats flipped enough seats to take control of both the state Senate and the House of Delegates, creating unified Democratic control of state government for the first time in a quarter-century.

A Washington Post-Schar School poll found conducted in late September found gun policy was the top issue on Virginia voters’ minds, above kitchen-table mainstays like education and health care.

John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a national group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that spent $2.5 million to help create Democratic majorities in the state legislature, said Virginia’s elections would send a message to politicians in suburban districts across the country.

“Stand up for gun safety. Or start looking for a new job,” Feinblatt said.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, the state’s top pro-gun group, sent an email to its members Thursday warning that the “worst scenario for gun owners in Virginia” had just come to pass.

In his election analysis, VCDL President Philip Van Cleave suggested the Democratic wins in the House could be chalked up more to court-ordered redistricting rather than a “referendum on gun control.” He said gun owners can continue to push back through legal challenges, pressuring moderate Democrats, urging local sheriffs to adopt “Second Amendment Sanctuary” policies and refuse to enforce restrictive gun laws and showing up the Capitol en masse in January for a “massive” lobbying day.

“VCDL is not going to back down — the fight is on,” Van Cleave wrote.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, sits in a legislative hearing earlier this year.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, sits in a legislative hearing earlier this year. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

For years, armed gun enthusiasts have flooded the halls of the state Capitol once a year to make sure Republican majorities killed any and all gun-control legislation. Each year, Democratic leaders who believe the state’s gun laws are far too lax have rallied with supporters outside the Capitol, knowing they didn’t have the numbers to get their proposals through GOP-controlled committees.

That scenario played out in dramatic fashion during a summertime special session Gov. Ralph Northam called in response to the mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building. The outcome was the same. Republicans — who said Northam was politicizing the shooting and calling for new laws that had little to do with it — adjourned the session after 90 minutes, sending the bills to the Virginia State Crime Commission for a study gun-control advocates dismissed as a stall tactic.

In a few months, that dynamic will be reversed, with gun-control supporters controlling the flow of legislation and gun-rights groups left with little power to stop it.

The NRA donated at least $350,000 to Republicans in 2019 and made another $22,000 in independent expenditures, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The NRA-supported candidates won in conservative districts. Democrats sought to link several targeted Republicans to the NRA, even as some Republicans in competitive suburban races signaled they were open to additional gun restrictions.

The NRA referenced the Bloomberg-linked money in its post-election statement, warning that “Virginians are about to experience life under a distant tycoon’s thumb.”

Candidates who proudly accepted Bloomberg’s cash — and every voter they misled — will soon realize the cost of being beholden to a Manhattan billionaire who despises Virginians’ right to self-defense,” said the NRA, which is headquartered in deep-blue Fairfax County.

At a cabinet meeting Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam said he expects to work with the new Democratic majorities to pass the same gun bills he called for earlier this year. That list includes universal background checks, red flag laws, a ban on assault-style weaponry like high-capacity magazines, suppressors and bump stocks, reinstating a one-handgun-a-month law, requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms within 24 hours and giving local governments power to enact their own gun rules, even if they go further than state law.

An attendee at a committee hearing in the General Assembly wears a gun in his belt. State lawmakers allow only people with concealed carry permits to bring guns into the Capitol. Guns are banned in other state office buildings. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Lori Haas, a veteran gun-safety advocate whose daughter was wounded in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, said there may be some tweaks to the bills before the 2020 session begins Nov. 8.

“I would be surprised if the entire package doesn’t pass,” said Haas, of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Richmond Nov. 18 to resume the special session on guns, but that may now be moot. If the lame-duck GOP majorities feel inclined to seek a compromise, Democrats could just wait until January when they’d no longer need Republican votes to pass what they want. And if Republicans try to pass their own proposals or try to loosen gun laws on their way out, Northam could strike their bills down with a veto.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.