Members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League gathered in Reston in July 2010 to celebrate a new law permitting open carry of guns in bars. (Dayna Smith/DAYNA SMITH/FTWP)

While economic issues are dominating the debate from the presidential campaign down to most local contests, some Northern Virginia Democrats are hoping to make their races this year a referendum on another topic — guns.

In the state Senate contest for the 31st District , Arlington County Board member Barbara A. Favola (D) and some sympathetic activists are making the case that businesswoman Caren Merrick (R) is far to the right of suburban voters on gun-control issues.

Lawyer Pamela Danner (D) has made the same charge against Del. Barbara Comstock (R) in their 34th District House race. And a handful of other contests in Northern Virginia feature similarly stark splits, with Democrats who get an F grade from the National Rifle Association facing Republicans who scored A’s.

Virginia as a whole tends to support gun rights and elects politicians who do as well. But voters in the close-in Washington suburbs are often more liberal than their downstate neighbors on a host of social issues, including guns.

The question in this year’s races isn’t just where Northern Virginia residents stand on gun issues; it’s whether they care enough about the subject that it will affect their votes Nov. 8.

Favola, in particular, hopes that they do.

Running to succeed retiring state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D) in a redrawn district that stretches from Arlington to eastern Loudoun County, Favola has leaned heavily on social issues to attack Merrick. She has been helped by gun-control advocates.

At a debate at the Cherrydale Volunteer Fire Station on Oct. 19, Merrick was asked by Omar Samaha — an activist whose sister, Reema Samaha, was killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre — about her position on regulation of private gun sales. Video of the exchange was posted on the liberal blog Blue Virginia.

Merrick said she believes “in gun safety and responsible gun ownership” and said her NRA ratings were similar to those of Sens. James Webb (D) and Mark R. Warner (D) “and almost every delegate here in Northern Virginia.” (That is true of Merrick’s fellow Republicans but not most of the region’s Democrats in the General Assembly.)

Merrick was also asked whether she would release the questionnaire she filled out for the NRA.

“I believe that my survey will be released before the election,” Merrick said. “But I have to say, in all candor, when I am knocking on thousands of doors in this district, the questions tonight have not been representative of what I have been asked.”

Chris LaCivita, a consultant who is working for the Merrick campaign, said Democrats are simply trying to rally their base.

“All the Democrats are doing is attempting to talk about two issues — guns and abortion — for the purpose of turning out the most ardent Democrats to vote,” LaCivita said, calling that “a big strategic gamble” given the importance of economic issues this year.

As for the NRA questionnaire, LaCivita said Merrick would release a copy of it “when Barbara Favola releases her questionnaire from the AFL-CIO.”

Favola responded that she would “be happy to” release her AFL-CIO questionnaire and added that she was proud of her F rating from the NRA.

Democrats have tried similar tactics. In the 2009 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran criticized state Sen. Creigh Deeds as being too supportive of gun rights, though Deeds won the nomination with ease anyway.

In 2010, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D) and gun-control groups attacked Republican Keith Fimian for saying that the Virginia Tech incident could have been avoided “if one of those kids in one of those classrooms was packing heat.” Connolly, who beat Fimian by fewer than 1,000 votes, believes the issue made a real difference.

“It’s not an important issue to voters until it is,” Connolly said, pointing to his race as “empirical evidence” that focusing on guns can be an effective strategy.

A statewide poll of Virginians conducted in March by the Democratic firm Hart Research for the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns found 55 percent of registered voters wanted gun laws that were “more strict” and 5 percent preferred them to be “less strict,” while 35 percent wanted the laws to stay the same.

But nationwide, a Gallup poll conducted in early October found “support for a variety of gun-control measures at historical lows,” the survey organization reported. Forty-three percent of respondents said gun laws should be “more strict,” down from 78 percent in 1991 and 51 percent in 2007.

And when Gallup asked this month what was “the most important problem” facing the United States, fewer than 1 percent of respondents cited guns or gun control.

In the 34th District House race, which covers much of the same geographic territory as the Favola-Merrick contest, Danner has said Comstock’s A rating from the NRA was “not consistent with this district.”

Given the economic climate, Comstock called it “sad” that Danner has “conducted a campaign focused on divisive social issues and constant negative attacks.” Comstock said she supports the Second Amendment, “like the bipartisan majority of Virginia state and federal legislators.”

Support for gun rights in Virginia often does cross over partisan lines. One bill frequently cited by Danner in criticizing Comstock — a 2010 measure allowing concealed weapons in bars — passed the state House 67 to 27 with the support of some Northern Virginia Democrats, including Dels. David L. Bulova, Mark L. Keam and Mark D. Sickles.

Joshua Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said he was confident that Northern Virginia voters support increased gun-control measures.

“From the polling that I’ve seen, issues like [banning] guns on campus and closing the gun-show loophole are really popular in these districts,” Horwitz said.

But NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said support for gun rights “transcends geographical lines and also transcends partisan lines. . . . Anyone who tries to cast the Second Amendment as a liability is doing so at their own peril.”