In Va. Gubernatorial Race, It's About Who's More Pro-Gun

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009

Walking the jam-packed aisles of Virginia's biggest gun show, Richard Begay carried a .30-06 Sauer hunting rifle and a hand-lettered cardboard sign on his back asking $1,199.

Unlike the federally licensed firearms dealers at tables nearby, Begay, 72, an occasional seller, can peddle the slick-looking rifle legally without a background check to any interested adult he meets at the show in Chantilly. To him, it's his right. To others, it's a potential disaster.

"I ask for their name and ID," said Begay, a bus monitor for the Fairfax County public schools who visited the Nation's Gun Show at the Dulles Expo Center this past weekend. "I hold on to it in case something does happen so I can tell the police."

The question of how much to regulate the sale and possession of guns has always been a dividing line in Virginia political contests. This year's gubernatorial candidates -- former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell (R) and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D) -- both have extensive pro-gun records. But the campaign is unfolding at a turbulent and uncertain time in the nation's debate over guns. One unresolved issue in Virginia, where 36 percent of households have a firearm, is whether to close the so-called gun show loophole, which permits freelance sellers like Begay.

The issue gained momentum after the April 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, which left 33 dead, including the student gunman.

"Virginia is ground zero for this debate," said Alexander Howe, a spokesman for Americans United for Safe Streets. Legislation to require background checks for every transaction at a gun show is pending in Congress as both sides strive for the advantage.

President Obama's election triggered a surge in sales among gun buyers, who feared that he and a Democratic-led Congress would push for new regulations. Instead, gun owners have cheered moves by Congress to allow people to carry concealed weapons in national parks and to link voting rights for the District to looser gun regulations.

In Congress last week, gun control advocates narrowly defeated a bid to force states to honor concealed handgun permits issued by other states. Two of the Democrats who supported the proposal were Sens. Mark R. Warner and James Webb of Virginia.

Advocates on both sides of the gun rights debate are closely following the Virginia race and the candidates' stands on gun shows for signs of a shifting trend.

Gun control advocates say private sellers should perform the same background check on prospective buyers that is required of federally licensed firearms dealers. Since February 1994, when the Brady Act began requiring licensed dealers to run such checks, more than 1.2 million purchases have been stopped because the buyer was ineligible -- a point of pride among gun control advocates.

But gun owners counter that requiring background checks for all gun show sales is the first step toward mandatory checks anytime a gun changes hands -- whether a father wanted to pass on a .22-caliber rifle to his son or a member of a shooting club wanted to trade shotguns with a fellow member. They also say there is scant evidence that criminals get their guns from gun shows, citing Justice Department statistics that indicate only 0.7 percent of guns used in crimes were purchased at gun shows.

Until recently, Deeds, as a lawmaker from rural Bath County, had been a more staunch advocate of gun rights than McDonnell, whose career began in Virginia Beach. One of Deeds's signature pieces of legislation was a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing Virginians the right to hunt and fish. Deeds also secured the National Rifle Association's backing in the 2005 attorney general's race against McDonnell, who won by 360 votes.

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