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.