Virginia’s split personality on gun control

December 19, 2012

The Newtown, Conn., school shootings have revived an issue that neatly illustrates purple Virginia’s split political personality: guns.

Gun-rights supporters have for years dominated the General Assembly in Richmond, where visitors with permits can bring firearms into the state Capitol. This year, lawmakers abolished a law that had capped handgun purchases to one a month, and they stripped localities of the right to require fingerprints from people applying for concealed-handgun permits.

And in the aftermath of the massacre in Connecticut, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II said the state should consider allowing teachers to carry weapons at schools. Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) went further Wednesday, offering a bill that would require schools to arm some teachers or other staff members.

But there’s evidence that the issue may have lost some of its power to swing statewide races, as Democratic candidates feel less pressure to toe a pro-gun line.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D), who is up for reelection in 2014 and has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, said this week that “the status quo” could not be maintained. “There’s got to be a way to put reasonable restrictions, particularly as we look at assault weapons, as we look at these fast clips of ammunition.”

Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who many expect to face Cuccinelli in the governor’s race next year, called for “mainstream restrictions on dangerous weapons that we can agree on,” including an assault weapons ban.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling — who dropped out of the race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in November but says he is considering an independent bid — broke with McDonnell on the possibility of arming teachers.

“The Lieutenant Governor believes that the job of a teacher is to teach and he does not support arming teachers,” Bolling’s deputy chief of staff, Ibbie Hedrick, said in an e-mail. “If school security needs to be enhanced, it should be done by trained law enforcement personnel.”

And in this year’s marquee U.S. Senate race, Timothy M. Kaine (D) beat another former governor, George Allen (R), despite Allen’s “A” rating from the NRA and Kaine’s “F.” Gun issues did not play a prominent role in the race.

That marked a change from two decades ago, when Allen won the 1993 race for governor, partly by attacking Attorney General Mary Sue Terry (D) for her support of gun control.

In 2001, Warner’s gubernatorial win “sealed a big change in political thinking about the issue: that even for Democrats running statewide, gun-control issue was a sure loser,” said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University. “Democrats running statewide from then mostly seemed to bend over backwards to prove how gun friendly they were.”

Now, Rozell said, “the combination of demographic shifts in Virginia and the tragedy in Connecticut will move Democratic candidates running statewide to push for gun restrictions, with much less, if any, fear of negative political repercussions.”

Surveys have shown the state as split. In a May Washington Post poll, 53 percent of respondents said they supported stricter gun-control, down from 58 percent in 2007. But 71 percent said they would have preferred to keep the state’s one-gun-per-month law.

Perhaps because some Virginians worry that stronger gun control is coming, there are reports of buyers flocking to stores to stock up on weapons that they think could be banned or restricted. Earl Curtis, owner of the Blue Ridge Arsenal in Chantilly, said Tuesday that traffic was unusually heavy at his shop and that many customers were interested in buying semiautomatic rifles.

Virginia State Police reported that background checks hit 4,166 transactions on the Saturday after the Newtown shootings, a 42 percent increase from last year and the highest one-day volume since the program began in 1989. The state police Firearms Transactions Center, which fields all background check requests from licensed gun dealers in Virginia, cautioned that the number of checks does not correspond to the number of guns purchased. But the checks are run on every customer who is buying at least one firearm. This year, the number of checks done from Jan. 1 to Nov. 30 increased to 357,267, or 28 percent, from 279,209 in the same period last year.

In the booming suburbs of Northern Virginia, support for gun-control is particularly strong. In 2010, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D) narrowly won reelection in his Fairfax County-based district after assailing businessman Keith Fimian (R) for saying the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings might have been prevented if students and other people on campus had been armed.

“A very substantial portion of the Virginia population is urban and suburban, and they understand about urban violence and the threat of it,” Connolly said. “Many Virginians support sensible, reasonable [gun control] measures.”

State Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) said he was skeptical that gun-control laws would make anyone safer, even if the legislation could make it through the General Assembly, which he doubts. “I think there will probably be some anti-gun legislation introduced,” he said. “I think it will be defeated.”

Gun rights, Black said, are “so thoroughly entrenched in the fabric of Virginia society, and the Second Amendment advocates are so networked and very effective politically. If someone threatens to harm their Second Amendment rights, they are just relentless in going after them politically.

But despite a string of successes in Richmond, the gun lobby was unable to persuade state lawmakers this year to lift a ban on guns in unsecured areas of airports — or to prevent public colleges from banning weapons on campus. The ban was promoted as a way to thwart attacks like the Virginia Tech massacre. Some relatives of victims and law enforcement officials argued successfully that armed amateurs could wind up injuring more people.

Even before the shootings in Newtown, Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) was working on a bill that would prohibit members of the public from bringing semiautomatic rifles into the Capitol and General Assembly Building. Handguns would still be allowed with permits.

It is a compromise from a failed measure he introduced in 2010 to ban the public from bringing any weapons into those buildings. “The gun lobby has a firm grip around the General Assembly,” Hope said, explaining his decision to scale back the legislation. “And politics is the art of the possible.”

Some legislators who favor gun control said the Newtown rampage may nudge the commonwealth in their direction.

State Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, is working on legislation to close the so-called gun-show loophole, which allows some firearms sales to be made without criminal background checks.

“I’ve put [the bill] in, in the past. It didn’t go anywhere,” she said. “But I think this year, I’m hopeful that people will come to their senses.”

Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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