On the divisive issue of guns, differences between red and blue weren’t always so black and white

July 6, 2021 12:02 am

Men hold signs and flags during a pro-gun rally in Richmond on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

No one who hasn’t lived as a hermit in a cave in Borneo the past few decades can profess ignorance of the potent role the implacable dispute over gun rights vs. gun control plays in today’s politics.

If you’re a Republican, you can’t love unfettered rights to own and use firearms enough. It’s a sine qua non for GOP voters who won’t abide even minimal squishiness on gun rights from their candidates.

To appreciate its power, consider a campaign mailer that Winsome Sears, the party’s lieutenant governor nominee, sent out before the May 8 state GOP convention depicting her in a business suit holding a military-style rifle in front of a modest recreational vehicle.

Democrats are just as strident in their opposition to the National Rifle Association and in their support for restricting gun sales and ownership. The party’s gubernatorial nominee, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, boasts of the F grades the NRA gives him. 

When Democrats took control of the General Assembly in 2020, they acted quickly to pass several gun-control measures that had died each year when the Republicans ruled the House and Senate, including mandatory universal background checks for gun purchases. The legislation prompted a protest by thousands of gun-rights supporters in early January of that year on and surrounding the state Capitol grounds. After the bills became law, many Virginia localities declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” in which some sheriffs and police refused to enforce the new regulations.

It is an issue with no middle ground. It starkly delineates the two parties and, to a large degree, is reflected geographically in the widening gulf between urban and suburban populations and the state’s rural areas.

In an ever more culturally and politically tribal nation where mass shootings are almost a daily fact of life, the debate over guns now forces policymakers to take sides and punishes those who seek accommodation and compromise.

That wasn’t always the case, however. In the governor’s race 20 years ago, a Democratic dalliance with the NRA risked a rift within the party.

Back then, the Democrats were as thoroughly out of power in Virginia as the Republicans are now. George Allen and Jim Gilmore had kept the governor’s office in GOP hands for two consecutive terms and appeared headed for a third. In 1999, Republicans had ended generations of Democratic legislative dominance by winning outright majorities in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate. In 2000, Allen ousted Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb and gave his party both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats while George W. Bush easily carried Virginia in his narrow presidential win.

The 1999 and 2000 losses were deflating for the Democrats, the continuation of a trend that saw Republicans consistently strengthen their hold on rural Virginia. Gun rights had figured prominently into the GOP’s strategy of galvanizing its base outside of the “Urban Crescent” stretching from the Washington, D.C., suburbs south around Richmond and southeast through Hampton Roads.

Mark Warner, a young telecommunications multimillionaire and rising Democratic star, had lost his 1996 bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. John Warner (no relation) and had his eyes on a comeback in the 2001 governor’s race. To win, however, he believed he had to mitigate the lopsided vote margins Republicans were amassing in rural Virginia.

He worked the backroads hard years ahead of his campaign. He and fellow investors seeded venture capital projects across rural Virginia. He promised to target the region, devastated by textile and furniture factory closures, for jobs that were going offshore.

As awkward as it may seem, the latte-sipping, Connecticut-raised Harvard Law School graduate and Alexandria resident immersed himself in rural culture. On the advice of his rural-strategy guru, David “Mudcat” Saunders of Roanoke, he entered a campaign-logo car in a NASCAR race in Martinsville and had a bluegrass band cut a reworded version of “Dooley.”

Get ready to shout it from the coal mines to the stills;
Here comes Mark Warner, the hero of the hills,” the lyrics say at one point.

Key to selling his pitch to rural voters, however, was being seen as a different breed of Democrat who was not hostile to their values, especially gun rights.

Warner made a longshot play to possibly secure the NRA’s endorsement or, more plausibly, keep the organization, with its massive money, messaging and mobilization capabilities, on the sidelines by not endorsing his Republican opponent, Mark Earley.

Warner’s position on Second Amendment issues that year was carefully nuanced: he pledged not to seek new gun controls but, rather, to enforce gun laws already on the books. He went turkey hunting and formed an allied pro-hunting/shooting sports group called Sportsmen for Warner that festooned the countryside with blaze orange signs and bumper stickers bearing its name.

Joining Warner on the Democratic ticket that year were Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine, making his first statewide run for lieutenant governor, and then-Del. Donald McEachin, the attorney general nominee. All three now have day jobs on Capitol Hill.

McEachin was no fan of Warner’s cozying up to the NRA, and it all came to a head during a news conference in an obscure, stuffy and windowless meeting room on the state Capitol’s top floor before its 2005-2007 renovation.

McEachin appeared alongside former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder who was there to endorse him. The presence of the nation’s first elected Black governor who had authored Virginia’s first one-handgun-a-month law lent McEachin credibility and raised the stakes for Warner, who had managed Wilder’s historic 1989 campaign. Nor was the racial dynamic lost on the handful of Capitol press corps members at the news conference: McEachin was the only non-White candidate on the 2001 statewide ballot.

True to form, Wilder did not hold back when asked about the guns issue. Whipping himself into high dudgeon, he likened Warner’s flirtation with the NRA to “the courtship between the monkey and the skunk where the monkey finally says, ‘I have enjoyed as much of this as I can stand!’”

It was a development worthy of the front page in a closely contested governor’s race. Further, it had the potential to open a fissure among the Democrats and create troubling optics that the GOP could exploit for weeks.

But after what befell the United States that morning, it was as though what was arguably the most consequential news conference of the 2001 campaign never happened.

Wilder had just finished his parable about the monkey-skunk tryst when the reporters’ cell phones and pagers lit up. Years before internet-connected smartphones and minutes into the 10 a.m. news conference on Sept. 11, 2001, frantic editors were summoning all hands to help cover the biggest story since World War II that had just hit close to home.

Ellen Qualls, then the Richmond bureau chief for WDBJ-TV in Roanoke and later Warner’s press secretary, informed the room that a plane had just struck the Pentagon. The presser was forgotten.

After a respectable hiatus, the campaigns cautiously resumed, taking chastened baby steps into an uncharted new world of politics.

Warner got what he wanted as the NRA sat out the governor’s race, endorsing neither candidate. That helped him perform respectably in rural Virginia and win the election. Kaine also won and succeeded Warner as governor four years later.

Differences within the Democratic ticket over guns never emerged in any significant way. McEachin lost the attorney general’s race but would serve in the state Senate before winning the U.S. House seat he now holds from Virginia’s 4th District.

The gray area on guns has not been replicated since 2001. Last year, Warner and Kaine jointly proposed a sweeping new gun control law that would mirror at the federal level multiple reforms Virginia had just adopted, including universal background checks.

Predictably, the legislation went nowhere in a Congress closely matched between red seats and blue ones where gun issues are always black-and-white — no shades of gray allowed.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]