Homegrown Gun Politics Plays Well With Voters

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007

RICHMOND Another month, another story involving Virginia and guns makes international headlines.

This week, reporters from as far away as Germany have inquired about the Virginia Citizens Defense League's "Bloomberg Gun Giveaway" event scheduled for tonight at Fairfax County's Mason District Governmental Center in Annandale.

The group is planning to give away a semiautomatic pistol, a hunting rifle and ammunition to protest New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's lawsuits against six Virginia gun shops that New York suspects of selling guns illegally. Fairfax officials have questioned whether the event is legal, but it is unclear whether they will succeed in stopping it.

Last week, Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) got in a public spat with Bloomberg over the stings, and newspapers across the country covered the dispute. The New York Post ran the story under the headline "Virginia Gunning for Bloomy."

The dispute over Bloomberg's tactics follows the Virginia Tech massacre, which left 33 people dead April 16. The day after the shooting, a columnist for the New York Daily News wrote, "Still love those guns, Virginia?"

The tabloids in New York and Europe also seized on suggestions from Virginia gun-rights groups and some lawmakers that the shooting could have been prevented had students been allowed to carry weapons on campus. A London Mirror columnist wrote, "The redneck response to the Virginia Tech massacre could not have been more haunting had it been hollered to the accompaniment of duelling banjos . . . The gun-worshipers' solution to America's serial school-slayings is clear. Arm the kids."

A month before the Tech shooting, Virginia got tagged for having a U.S. senator who packs a pistol, after an aide to Sen. James Webb (D) was arrested while carrying Webb's loaded gun into the Russell Senate Office Building.

A year earlier, another lawmaker who carries, Del. John S. "Jack" Reid (R-Henrico), became the butt of the late-night comics after his .380 semiautomatic handgun accidentally discharged in the General Assembly building.

But, hey, this is Virginia, home to the National Rifle Association and hundreds of thousands of gun owners. Virginians in most parts of the state like their guns, despite what the Europeans or those New Yorkers say.

That is why McDonnell, a possible candidate for governor in 2009, scored a big political victory last week by provoking a fight with Bloomberg. McDonnell got to burnish his credentials with the gun groups that make up a significant portion of the Republican base that will decide the GOP nominee for governor.

During his 2005 bid for attorney general, McDonnell became the second statewide Republican candidate in 15 years who didn't win the NRA's endorsement. The NRA, upset that McDonnell had supported the 1993 one-handgun-a-month law, instead threw its support behind Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, a state senator from Bath.

Now, McDonnell's a hero for standing up to Bloomberg.

"Score one for individual rights. Thank you, Attorney General McDonnell," Shaun Kenney, spokesman for the Virginia Republican Party, wrote on the party's blog last week.

Republicans aren't the only ones who have been trying to cozy up to the gun lobby. Democrats also realize that gun owners are a potent political force in Virginia.

Even though he represents liberal-leaning Alexandria, Del. Brian J. Moran (D) has been increasingly siding with the gun lobby as he considers a bid for governor in 2009.

This year, Moran voted for a bill to allow someone with a concealed weapons permit from another state to carry a gun in Virginia without going through another background check. He also supported a bill to make it harder for local officials to outlaw hunting near subdivisions.

Unfortunately for Moran, the Republican-controlled Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee usually kills any bill that even remotely sounds like gun control before it can reach the House floor for an up-or-down vote.

This year, the committee refused to consider a bill by Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax) to make someone liable for leaving a gun unsecured in a house where a mentally ill or retarded person lives. The committee also wouldn't vote on a bill requiring minors to get their parent's permission before they can have a firearm.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who is barred by law from seeking a second consecutive term, may emerge as a moderate voice in the gun debate when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Kaine pledged when he campaigned in 2005 to support the Second Amendment. But as Richmond's mayor in the late 1990s, he saw firsthand the effect gun violence can have on a community. He even helped organize a bus trip so Richmond residents could attend the anti-gun Million Mom March in 2000.

Because of the Virginia Tech shootings, Kaine may push to close a loophole that allows people to purchase weapons at gun shows without undergoing a federal background check.

But Kaine is a smart politician and a loyal Democrat, so don't expect him to push for major gun-control initiatives next year. He thinks Virginia could be competitive for Democrats in next year's presidential election, for the first time in a generation.

The last thing the Democrats need is a high-profile fight over guns because, as the past week proved, gun-rights groups remain influential in Virginia politics.

New Yorkers and Europeans will have to get used to it. Until, of course, Virginia voters give them a reason to think otherwise.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company