Eight years ago, Rep. Abigail Spanberger left the CIA and soon became a rookie grass-roots activist with her local Virginia chapter of Moms Demand Action, looking to get involved in politics for the first time.
Spanberger is one of three Virginia Democrats targeted by Republicans this year, along with Reps. Elaine Luria and Jennifer Wexton — all of whom flipped their districts blue in 2018 in part by championing gun safety. And all of whom renewed calls to ban assault-style weapons and voted for gun violence prevention bills in the aftermath of recent shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Tex.
“This has always been an issue I care very deeply about,” Spanberger said. “Having carried a firearm every day, this was how I first got involved in advocacy. And it continues to be something I hear about every day in the district.”
How their support for those gun bills goes over with voters — particularly in the toss-up districts represented by Luria and Spanberger — is more of a wild card this year considering the wind is “at Democrats’ faces and at Republicans’ backs,” said Quentin Kidd, academic director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy, which has polled Virginians on their gun-control views. In a midterm election functioning more as a referendum on President Biden and Democrats, Kidd said Republicans may be more energized to turn out — meaning the electorate could lean against gun control even though polling in recent years has shown a majority of Virginians support it.
“In a really competitive district like that, being able to motivate your voters more than the other side matters,” Kidd said. “Republican voters really care about gun control. They don’t want it, and I think Republican voters don’t want gun control more than Democratic voters want gun control. That puts Spanberger and Luria in a tough place.”
Late last month, The Washington Post asked Republican and Democratic candidates in Virginia’s 7th, 2nd and 10th districts to participate in a survey expanding on their ideas about what the nation should do in response to mass shootings, or explaining their support or opposition to existing gun proposals moving through Congress. Only the incumbent Democrats participated, expressing firm support for a variety of gun restrictions, many of which they have already voted for in the House over the past week.
Some Republican candidates spoke about their views on gun policies in interviews or in public speeches following the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings. But it all comes down to the familiar partisan split: the Republican candidates avoiding gun restrictions and preferring to focus on mental health or school security, or seeking to expand gun rights.
“It’s critical that we look at mental health,” state Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), who is seeking the Republican nomination to run against Spanberger and who unsuccessfully sought to repeal Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law this year, said in a recent interview. “Guns don’t kill people — people kill people.”
Reeves and state Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), who is seeking to challenge Luria and voted with Republicans against Virginia’s 2020 package of gun restrictions, were both endorsed by the National Rifle Association.
At a May 27 event in Unionville, four of Reeves’s opponents — Yesli Vega of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors; David Ross of the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors; veteran Derrick Anderson; and Stafford County Board of Supervisors Chair Crystal Vanuch — told a crowd they would support allowing people to carry guns without a license or permit, known as constitutional carry. They also said they would support the repeal of Virginia’s red-flag law, which allows authorities to temporarily seize guns from people found by a judge to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others. Ross added in an interview that he would prioritize removing gun-free zones if elected to Congress.
Red-flag laws have become a sticking point in bipartisan negotiations in Congress. While the House passed a federal red-flag bill, a bipartisan group of senators put forth a proposal to incentivize states to create their own red-flag laws or other mental health crisis interventions through federal grants, a proposal that is facing pushback from conservative senators. It’s part of a broader package in response to the mass shootings that includes major investments in mental health and school safety and other gun policy proposals.
Paul Moog, who founded the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said he feared that if enough Republican senators supported the package it would end up “hurting Republican candidates across the country” and lead fervent gun rights supporters to lose faith in the GOP more broadly. Moog said that even though he might support some aspects of the package, such as including juvenile records in background checks, he viewed the red-flag component as a poison pill that would infringe on the rights of gun owners who haven’t been convicted of a crime.
In Moog’s view, Spanberger is “clearly out of step with the district” on gun restrictions. “It will not help her in this district — in fact it should hurt her. That’s really why I think it’s incumbent on the Republicans in the Senate to not compromise on gun rights because it will only take steam out of a winning issue for Republicans,” said Moog, who now chairs the Virginia Constitutional Conservatives’ gun rights task force, which is prioritizing repealing the state red-flag law.
The new 7th District shifted dramatically after redistricting, moving from the Richmond suburbs to the Fredericksburg area and parts of Prince William County — but it still includes some redder rural counties. Luria’s Virginia Beach-anchored 2nd District also picked up more rural portions of Southside Virginia after redistricting. Overall, both are districts that President Donald Trump lost but that Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) won.
Spanberger said she has tried to calibrate her approach to the gun issue in the suburbs and rural parts of her district to appreciate different experiences with guns or ideas about them. And she has tried to connect with those wary of her positions on guns through her background. She grew up around guns, she said, both as the daughter of a law enforcement officer and niece of an avid hunter. And as a former U.S. Postal Service investigator, she carried a gun every day.
“I think conversations frankly with people who were raised with a level of respect for firearms is maybe in some cases different from what I see in suburban communities,” Spanberger said. “I differentiate, because sometimes these conversations are easier or more straightforward where we’re both coming at the conversation with, you’re a responsible gun owner.”
Lynlee Thorne, the political director of Rural GroundGame, which seeks to help Democrats succeed in rural Virginia, said both Spanberger’s and Luria’s outreach to rural areas of their districts has been noticeable. Thorne emphasized that views about guns in these areas are far from monolithic, but said the perspectives of liberal gun owners who support preventive measures such as red-flag laws are often underrepresented.
Confronted with the narrative of Democrats wanting to “take your guns,” Thorne said her organization has tried to encourage starting a dialogue through sharing personal stories relevant to the debate. Thorne, for example, said she has tried to share her own experience as a domestic violence survivor to explain why she views red-flag laws as an important part of gun violence prevention, hoping to humanize the divisive issue.
“I think we have this distinct role and responsibility to be able to have those conversations, and I think one of the most powerful ways to do that is to share our own stories,” Thorne said. “Because with all of the divisiveness literally on every issue, I think no matter where people are on the political spectrum, there is this growing discomfort with the unstated recognition that the social fabric of our communities is really deeply damaged, that we are just not connecting to each other, that we are allowing Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow to have conversations that we just need to go and have with each other.”
For decades, Kidd said, advocating for gun control was an easy way to lose an election in Virginia — until around the time in 2013 when then-gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe got up on a stage and touted his F rating from the NRA. He later won the election. “I remember thinking at that time: I cannot believe he’s doing this, because gun control has always been a real loser for Democrats in Virginia,” Kidd said.
Wason Center polls between 2016 and 2019 recorded a majority of Virginians backing universal background checks, opposing carrying a gun without a permit, and supporting an assault-weapons ban, though the latter measure was far more divided along partisan lines.
Kidd said mass shootings — including one in Virginia Beach in 2019 — drove much of the shift in attitudes about gun control, especially among suburban voters and women in particular.
Del. Candi Mundon King, a Democrat who represents the most populous portion of Prince William County added to the 7th District, said she thought Republicans were mistaken if they thought voters would punish Spanberger for supporting gun restrictions.
“Gun violence prevention is going to be critical in the upcoming election to suburban moms, especially those like myself — because we see Buffalo, we see the tragic situation in Uvalde, and it goes beyond political parties, really, to people wanting common-sense laws to protect our children and our loved ones,” she said.
King, who is Black, had just returned home from the grocery store. She said the racist attack on the Buffalo supermarket was still fresh in her mind when her 10-year-old son asked if he could use the store’s restroom, and she hesitated — she didn’t want to separate from him.
“I think there are a lot of moms who feel the way I do,” she said.