In Virginia governor’s race, gun control surfaces late as a key issue

After months of inattention, Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D) have drawn the polarizing issue of guns into the spotlight of the Virginia governor’s race.

For once, a Democrat is talking tough about gun control, as if daring the National Rifle Association to take him on. And gun-rights advocates are all too happy to take him up on the challenge.

It began with the Oct. 24 candidate’s debate at Virginia Tech, the site of the worst mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history. In response to a question, Cuccinelli boasted of his A rating from the NRA.

And then McAuliffe did something surprising: He said he didn’t give a fig about the powerful lobby’s rating. And, oh, by the way, he had earned an F.

Differences over gun control between Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, and McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, were not a secret before that debate. But Democrats rarely brag about their support for gun-control measures in statewide elections in pro-gun Virginia. McAuliffe’s change in strategy suggested a play for his liberal base — but also hinted that he felt comfortable changing the playbook in the still-evolving swing state of Virginia.

“I don’t think you’ve seen any Democratic candidate run in Virginia as rabidly anti-gun as McAuliffe has in the last two weeks,” said David Adams, legislative director for the Virginia Shooting Sports Association, the state affiliate of the NRA.

Gun-control groups were equally wound up. Left dispirited by President Obama’s lack of action on firearms, some took heart in hearing a Democrat talking tough about new gun-control measures.

Colin Goddard, who survived four gunshots in the Virginia Tech massacre, said it seemed odd that it took so long for the dynamics of the debate to flip.

“I always thought there was a stark contrast between the candidates at the top of the ticket on this issue,” said Goddard, a senior policy advocate for Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He accused Cuccinelli of trying to change the subject on guns, while McAuliffe has not been shy about calling for universal background checks and other restrictions. “Traditionally, the Democratic candidates have not wanted to talk about this.”

Now, activists on both sides of the issue are hustling to win votes with just days to go until Election Day.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) urgently summoned gun owners to meet Thursday in Springfield to assemble a mailer that would get to voters this weekend, while members of Concerned Citizens Against Gun Violence in McLean scheduled a demonstration before a candidates’ forum Friday night.

Outsiders have also taken a stand. The Independence USA PAC, created by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), has spent nearly $2.3 million in Virginia this year, according to records with the Virginia Public Access Project, riling up gun-rights advocates who see him as a busybody.

“Obviously, the fact that the mayor of New York is coming down to play games in Virginia – that’s probably energizing people even more so,” said Jim Snyder, who as VCDL’s vice president arranged to put 7,000 mailings together at Thursday’s meeting.

The NRA, with headquarters in Fairfax County, haspoured more than $500,000 into this year’s elections, all of it for Republicans.

“I just don’t think the NRA carries the power that they want everyone to believe,” said Lori Haas, whose daughter also was injured in the Virginia Tech shooting. “They’re a paper tiger.”

Firearms have almost always figured as a powerful issue in Virginia politics, and that remains true even as the state slowly shifts from a rural stronghold into a coastal megalopolis. Republicans have succeeded in recent years with an agenda to allow more people to carry handguns, both openly and concealed, and to roll back earlier restrictions, including Virginia’s 1993 ban on buying more than one handgun a month.

Democrats and gun-control advocates said a shift in demographics and the continuing series of mass shootings — including at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December — have reframed the debate since the last election cycle.

Both sides also agree that even the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision upholding an individual’s right to own firearms has, paradoxically, allowed more people to consider incremental gun-control measures.

“We viewed that as a great ruling for a number of reasons,” said Haas, the state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “It would give gun owners the comfort to believe that some of our policies would not lead to a slippery slope that would take their guns away.”

Surveys show a mixed picture. A Quinnipiac University poll of Virginians this year found that 66 percent supported placing armed police officers in every school, and 50 percent believed that gun ownership helps protect people from crime. Only 41 percent believed that owning a gun puts them at risk.

But the poll also found big margins of support for requiring background checks on purchasers at gun shows (92 percent), banning assault weapons (58 percent), prohibiting high-capacity magazines (59 percent) and reinstating the one-gun-a-month limit (60 percent).

McAuliffe supports all those initiatives, campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin said in an e-mail.

Cuccinelli believes that Virginia’s requirements for background checks are among the strongest in the nation but could benefit from stronger enforcement.

He also calls for strengthening programs to deal with mental illness, saying that several high-profile shootings – including the one at Virginia Tech – could not have been stopped by the sorts of measures McAuliffe has proposed.

“McAuliffe has made clear that he plans to go after the constitutional rights of law-abiding Virginia gun owners if he’s elected,” Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix said in an e-mail.

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