In the days immediately after last month’s shootings in Newtown, Conn., the phone calls coming into Rep. Frank Wolf’s office were nearly all on the same page: Tougher gun laws are needed, especially on assault weapons.
Yet constituents of the Northern Virginia Republican have delivered a more complex message in recent days, with some still advocating tighter restrictions but others strongly warning against them. That mirrors a national debate expected to grow more heated in the wake of President Obama’s release Wednesday of a broad package of gun-law reforms.
In such a polarized climate, Wolf is a relatively rare lawmaker because he has entertained different approaches to gun-related issues, making him a potential swing vote for any related legislation taken up by the House this session.
Some lawmakers agree gun laws should be reviewed, some are focused on policies for the mentally ill, and others think violent video games and movies deserve more scrutiny.
“It’s kind of a three-legged stool,” said Wolf, who has been active on all fronts before many had heard of Sandy Hook Elementary.
On gun issues, Virginia as a whole defies easy characterization, and that is especially true of Wolf’s district. It spans from the affluent suburbs of McLean and Loudoun County to the rural precincts of the upper Shenandoah Valley, taking in a broad ideological spectrum of voters along the way.
Wolf has a mixed record on guns. The National Rifle Association, whose headquarters sits just a few miles outside his district in Fairfax, gave Wolf a B-plus in the last Congress, the lowest grade of any Republican U.S. House member from Virginia but higher than the state’s Democrats.
Wolf voted for the assault weapons ban in 1994 but also supported letting it expire in 2004 because, he said in a recent interview, “the statistics showed it didn’t do any good.” Wolf also backed the 1993 Brady bill requiring background checks and waiting periods for many handgun purchases.
As a key member of the Appropriations Committee, Wolf has helped to boost funding for the Justice Department to help states provide more data, including mental health records, to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Yet Wolf won’t yet take a public position on any of the various gun proposals that have emerged since the Newtown massacre, from restoring the assault weapons ban to putting more armed personnel in schools.
“On all these, I’m going to wait to see what’s in the final bill,” Wolf said recently. He declined to comment on Obama’s latest proposals on Wednesday.
Philip Van Cleave, the president of the pro-gun rights Virginia Citizens Defense League, said his group viewed Wolf “as somewhere in the middle” on gun issues. And he said the same of Loudoun County, which makes up a significant chunk of Wolf’s district. “For Northern Virginia, it is certainly more of a pro-gun area than, say, Fairfax,” Van Cleave said.
In a Washington Post-ABC News national poll released this week, a majority of respondents said the shootings in Newtown made them more likely to support some forms of gun control. But a May 2012 Post poll found that voters specifically in the Northern Virginia exurbs — including Loudoun and Prince William — were split, with 47 percent favoring stricter gun laws and 48 percent opposed.
In Loudoun, even the mayors are divided.
Bob Lazaro, the mayor of Purcellville, recently said he had joined Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group that supports more gun restrictions. “You have one side saying, ‘Take everyone’s guns away,’ and the other side saying ‘arm everybody,’ ” Lazaro told The Washington Post. “I think there’s a middle ground and room for some common sense.”
Yet Kristen Umstattd, the mayor of Leesburg, said she would not join the group and disagreed with its focus on gun control over boosting school security and caring for the mentally ill.
Wolf, for his part, has advocated for requiring health insurance companies to cover the costs of mental health treatments. He also has been a critic of violent video games.
In 2011 he co-sponsored a bill requiring certain games to carry a sticker: “WARNING: Excessive exposure to violent video games and other violent media has been linked to aggressive behavior.” Wolf said he plans to introduce new legislation on the subject this year, but he also knows any proposal will face an uphill fight given the lobbying power of the video-game industry.
Wolf is a frequent supporter of bipartisan commissions — the Iraq Study Group, which made high-profile recommendations on the direction of the Iraq war, was his idea, and he has repeatedly proposed a similar body to study Afghanistan. He also backs a suggestion by retired senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) for a national commission on mass violence.
“I think you have to look at everything,” Wolf said.