When gun control measures stalled at the national level, advocates took a page out of the conservative playbook: they focused on the states. This is not to say that there haven’t been hard-won victories at the national level. After Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in 2018, they expanded background checks and closed a loophole that allowed people to purchase guns before the required background check had been completed (including the perpetrator of the Emanuel AME Church shooting). But, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to take up either bill. Advocates and advocacy groups have focused their efforts on lobbying state legislatures and electing down-ballot candidates who would make gun control a priority.
In Virginia, home to the National Rifle Association, the issue helped propel Democrats to the governor’s mansion and allowed them to capture majorities in both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly for the first time in over two decades.
Though Ralph Northam supported gun control, it was not the defining issue of his successful 2017 gubernatorial campaign. Democrats gained 15 seats in the House of Delegates—including a first-time candidate whose girlfriend was murdered with a gun during a live news broadcast—but narrowly failed to secure a majority.
On May 31, 2019, twelve people were murdered by a gunman at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. That July, the Governor called a special legislative session on gun violence and offered up a comprehensive package that would be brought to the floor for a vote during the session, sidestepping the committee process. There were eight measures included:
- universal background checks (expanded to all sales, including private transactions but with narrow exemptions for family member transfers and in cases of immediate danger),
- banning more than one handgun purchase in a 30-day period,
- extreme risk protection orders that allow law enforcement—following a specific procedure—to seize someone’s guns if that person is considered a danger to themselves or others,
- allowing local governments to ban guns in public spaces during certain events,
- a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines,
- requiring reporting lost and stolen guns to law enforcement,
- a ban on people with protective orders against them from owning guns, and
- more severe penalties for people who allow children to access unsecured, loaded guns.
But, Republicans ended the session after only 90 minutes and directed a commission to release a report on the legislation, one week after the November election in which the entire General Assembly was on the ballot.
Republicans’ attempt to punt on the issue failed—and only put it more squarely in the minds of voters. The gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety capitalized on this and poured $2.5 million into the election, outspending the NRA 8:1.
A poll conducted just one month before the 2019 election found that gun policy had risen to be the most important issue for Virginia voters, with 75% ranking it as “very important.” While that question didn’t reveal where voters stood on the issue, overwhelming majorities of those surveyed favored extreme risk protection orders (so-called “red flag” laws) and expanded background checks; a majority of voters supported bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Democrats were also aided by demographic changes. Two-thirds of Virginia population growth in the last decade has happened in northern Virginia (home to many DC suburbs) and that growth has made the state younger and more racially diverse—and more liberal.
Democrats took control of both chambers of the General Assembly but cling to a very narrow majority in the more conservative and less diverse Senate: 21-19. They hold the House of Delegates by a 55-45 margin. And, as session gaveled in on January 8th, Democrats in both chambers prepared to make good on their signature campaign promise.
The backlash was swift. 91 out of 95 Virginia counties have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” asserting that they will not enforce any gun-related measure they deem unconstitutional. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Republican, has even urged disgruntled municipalities to secede to his state.
On January 20th—Virginia’s annual lobby day—thousands of gun rights activists from across the country surrounded the Virginia Capitol in Richmond. Militia members, armed with assault-style rifles and wearing body armor, filled the streets as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones addressed the crowds.
It’s still unclear what affect this backlash will have on Democrats’ chances of passing—and enforcing—significant gun control legislation. Last week, a modified assault-style weapons ban, which also banned silencers and high-capacity magazines, passed the House of Delegates but failed to make it out of the Senate committee and was designated for further study, essentially ensuring that it will not be considered this session. The bill, which was first introduced during last summer’s special session, was modified to allow assault-style rifle owners to keep their properly purchased weapons but that failed to persuade Democratic Senators from the state’s more conservative regions. Some claimed that banning future sales would be ineffective, others were concerned that “assault firearm” in the bill text was too imprecise and expansive. Ultimately, four Democratic committee members voted against the measure.
But, this week, that same committee advanced the seven other pieces of legislation from the Governor’s gun control package. Advocates are hopeful that these broadly popular and more moderate reforms—which target high-risk individuals, gun safety, and background checks—will become law.
In the meantime—and with the chances of Democrats taking back the US Senate slim— the gun control movement continues to focus its strategy on the states. Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest outside spender in Virginia’s 2019 election, is intent on replicating its success across the country. It’s announced that it will spend $8 million in Texas in 2020, which has strong parallels to Virginia. Everytown will focus on Texas’s increasingly diverse, young, and well-educated suburban voters in a state that has endured several high-profile mass shootings in just the last year.