WASHINGTON — Most Virginians favor stricter gun laws, although recent efforts to advance gun safety legislation have languished in the state General Assembly.
That disconnect has likely been due in part to partisan gerrymandering, according to a report released Tuesday by the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates progressive policies.
The analysis looks at gerrymandering in five states, including Virginia, where Democrats had won the majority of statewide votes, but Republicans maintained control over the state legislatures. Conservative politicians in those states have “refused to allow a meaningful debate on any commonsense gun safety measures,” according to the report’s authors. The paper also examined Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
“In each of these states, it is likely that, in the absence of partisan gerrymandering, the legislature would have enacted measures to strengthen gun laws — measures that could have saved lives,” the paper says.
CAP looked at gun safety legislation that has been stymied in Virginia in recent years, although the political landscape on the issue is set to shift dramatically in 2020. Democrats in November won control of the full state government for the first time since 1993, after making gun violence prevention a top agenda item.
Virginia Democrats were boosted in November by new district maps in the state. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Virginia Republicans, upholding a lower court ruling that had forced new maps to be drawn and gave Democrats an edge.
Virginia Democrats are now in control as the state is scheduled to redraw its legislative and congressional districts in 2021. The General Assembly will consider whether to approve a constitutional amendment that would create a bipartisan, 16-member commission tasked with redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional maps every 10 years, starting with the year after the 2020 census.
“Gerrymandering is a solvable problem,” the CAP report states, suggesting that states use independent commissions to draw districts, and to create voter-determined districts.
For instance, the authors wrote, “if 55 percent of voters support a particular party, that party should receive as close as possible to 55 percent of the seats. When districts are fair, more votes generally means more seats.”
Eric Holder, former attorney general under the Obama administration, said in a statement that the CAP report makes clear that “partisan gerrymandering that locks in power for one party makes politicians more likely to cater to the special interests who fund their campaigns than the people they should represent.”
Holder, who is now chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, added, “Finally ending gerrymandering when new maps are drawn in 2021 can be the key that unlocks progress on legislation supported by the vast majority of the American people to reduce gun violence.”
In 2017, Republicans won 51 percent of seats in the Virginia House of Delegates with only 45.2 percent of the vote, according to CAP.
That outcome had a “visible effect on gun violence legislation in the state,” according to the report’s authors, who noted that multiple gun violence prevention bills were introduced in January 2019 and voted down by the GOP majority.
When Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam called a July special session to consider gun reforms in the wake of a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, the GOP-controlled legislature voted along party lines to adjourn until November.
Virginia was ranked No. 1 in a September report by the University of Southern California Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, which ranked the “worst U.S. state legislative partisan gerrymanders.”
The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave Virginia a “D” on its annual scorecard that grades state gun laws. The state ranked 22nd out of 50 for the strength of its gun laws, according to the Giffords survey.
Meanwhile, there appears to be strong public support for tougher gun safety laws.
A poll conducted in Virginia in November by the gun safety advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and Schoen Consulting found that a plurality of voters in swing districts (28%) listed gun safety as the most important issue to them in the 2019 election.
Another poll released this month by the Christopher Newport University Wason Center for Public Policy showed strong support for expanding background checks for gun sales and enacting a state “red flag” law to temporarily remove guns from those who pose a threat to themselves or others, WTOP reported.