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Gun debate looms again in Va. congressional district miles from NRA

Gun-control advocates demonstrate outside the Fairfax headquarters of the National Rifle Association on May 25. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

In the shadow of the National Rifle Association headquarters, the debate over gun rights and gun control raged in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District when Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D) first won her seat in 2018 — a year of mass shootings in schools, at a Pittsburgh synagogue and at a California bar.

Now, in the wake of the country’s latest back-to-back mass shootings, the debate is starting to return in Wexton’s Northern Virginia district, a onetime bastion for the gun-rights movement that has trended blue over the past decade.

Wexton, who emerged in her first two terms as a fierce gun-control advocate, is gearing up for a campaign against Hung Cao, a retired U.S. Navy captain who has made his opposition to gun control clear, offering a stark contrast to voters on an issue likely to remain a dominant national conversation.

“The question is, do you want somebody in Congress who’s going to be fighting for common-sense gun-violence prevention legislation, or do you want somebody who’s going to throw up their hands and say, ‘Oh, well, there’s nothing we can do?' ” Wexton said in an interview Thursday.

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Cao, a Vietnamese refugee and first-time candidate, won the GOP nomination to take on Wexton in an 11-way primary last weekend. When asked about his position on gun control by a local outlet Tuesday — the day a gunman killed 19 schoolchildren and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex. — Cao said “gun control has never stopped anyone.”

“Most people get bludgeoned to death and stabbed to death than they get shot. I mean it’s a tragedy, it’s an absolute tragedy,” he told Loudoun Now in an interview about his platform. “But if it’s not guns it’s going to be with pipe bombs. Or knives or hammers. People get bludgeoned to death a lot. … There’s a lot of evil in the world and we’re not going to stop it with gun control.”

The vast majority of people who die by homicide are killed with guns, according to homicide data from the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2020, firearms became the leading cause of death among adolescents for the first time, surpassing car accidents.

Cao and his campaign did not respond to multiple inquiries seeking an interview. A campaign spokesman shared an earlier statement from Cao in which he lamented the tragedy in Uvalde, saying he and his wife “join all Americans in prayer for the students and families who are victims of a horrific act of violence today in Texas.”

He beat the best-funded GOP candidate in Virginia’s 10th. Meet Hung Cao.

The candidates’ responses illustrate the deep gulf between the parties about what the appropriate response should be as mass shootings, often targeting schools and communities of color, continue unabated. Ten days before the Texas school massacre, a gunman killed 10 in a racist rampage in a Buffalo supermarket.

Democrats, including Wexton, have issued another call to urgent action on gun-control provisions that have languished in Congress.

“We have to do better for our kids,” Wexton said Thursday. “It’s absolutely insane to me we keep allowing this to happen, because we can prevent some of these mass shootings, and it seems there’s no political will to do it. I don’t understand that. I don’t understand why the rights of the gun lobby are greater than the lives of our children.”

Many Republicans, including Cao, have said now is not the time for political discussions in the wake of the tragedies. On a conservative radio show Wednesday, Cao expressed dismay that he “got caught in a trap” talking about gun control with Loudoun Now and questioned, “Is it really the time to talk about gun control?”

Cao argued that mental health was the main problem that needed to be addressed. When asked by the radio host, Vince Coglianese, what role the federal government should play in preventing mass shootings, Cao said he did not envision any role other than providing funding to states that could go toward schools.

Wexton was one of three Virginia Democrats to flip seats blue in 2018 while promising to prioritize gun-control measures, alongside Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger.

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At the time, Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who survived being shot in the head in 2011, chose Virginia’s 10th district to launch her organization’s efforts to help elect Democrats prioritizing gun restrictions. The Giffords PAC made a $1 million ad buy to help Wexton in her campaign against then-Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who had an A rating from the NRA. The NRA’s Fairfax headquarters is less than 10 miles from the 10th District.

Giffords’s organization plans to invest in Wexton’s campaign again this year. A spokeswoman said in a statement Thursday that Wexton has “proved her status as a gun safety champion everyday since flipping her seat.”

The most recent tragedies “have made it all too clear how high the stakes are this fall and we are determined to protect our gun safety majority in Congress,” she said.

Wexton, a former domestic violence prosecutor and state senator, has supported Democratic gun-control proposals in Congress, including to ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines and to create a federal “red flag” law enabling authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from people who pose an imminent risk to themselves or others.

She voted in 2021 to expand background checks to all commercial gun sales and expand the federal background check window from three to 10 days to close the “Charleston loophole” — so named because a mass shooter at a Charleston church in 2015 was able to get a gun despite a criminal conviction because his background check wasn’t completed in time. Those two bills passed the House but stalled in the Senate, where Republicans have maintained their opposition. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) began leading negotiations on modest possible gun policies this week.

Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said he anticipated that in the 10th district, Democrats would again be driven to vote on the gun-control issue in November.

“Advocacy for stronger gun-control laws plays well in that district,” he said, “and particularly for Wexton, who very effectively took that issue to the voters in her first election in 2018.”

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Public opinion on gun policy was shifting then in once-red Virginia, polls showed. A majority of Virginians expressed broad approval of expanding background checks and “red flag” laws ahead of the 2019 state election.

But gun-control laws passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly in 2020 — after a Virginia Beach shooting that killed 12 people — prompted backlash among Republicans. Thousands of gun-rights supporters protested in Richmond ahead of the laws’ passage, and many Republican candidates and officeholders have campaigned against the measures since, including in 2021, when Republicans won control of the state House and Executive Mansion.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who focused more on schools and the economy, lost in the 10th district as it’s drawn now by less than 2 percentage points.