The GOP blocked a major push for gun control after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, where 33 people died. They chose instead to respond to that shooting by joining Democrats to enact mental-health reforms.
Although there are signs that public opinion has been shifting in favor of gun control in Virginia, the state has a history of support for gun rights symbolized by the location in Fairfax of the headquarters of the National Rifle Association.
Each year, Democrats propose multiple gun-control measures, such as strengthening background checks, limiting handgun purchases to one per month and allowing localities to regulate guns in public buildings. They call these “common-sense” measures to save lives.
Each year, Republican majorities in one or both chambers of the legislature vote them down, usually in committee. GOP legislators say their goal is never to infringe on people’s Second Amendment rights.
“There’s been no tragedy that has gotten the [Republican] majority to think twice and consider reasonable efforts,” said state Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who sponsored SB1748 and is co-chair of the Gun Violence Prevention Caucus. A big reason, he said, is the political influence of gun rights organizations.
“Part of the problem is that the [Virginia] Citizens Defense League and the NRA have a stranglehold on the votes of the Republicans,” Ebbin said.
League President Philip Van Cleave, whose organization prides itself on taking stronger positions than the NRA, defended his group’s record.
“Gun control does not save lives. It endangers innocent life by making it harder for good people to defend themselves,” Van Cleave said in an email. “The GOP leadership understands that basic truth.”
Van Cleave said his group opposes all magazine restrictions, such as the 10-round limit proposed by Ebbin’s bill. “D.C. has those 10-round restrictions and eight times the murder rate of Northern Virginia, which has no limits on magazine size,” he said.
The NRA did not respond to requests for comment. It typically maintains a low profile in the days immediately after a highly publicized shooting incident.
After the Virginia Tech slayings, then the worst mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history, gun-control advocates led by then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D), now a U.S. senator, pushed hard to change some laws. The centerpiece of his package was a proposal to require gun sellers to conduct background checks on all buyers at gun shows.
Instead, with GOP support, the legislature lowered the standard under which a mentally ill person can be forced into treatment, and expanded the criteria under which a mentally ill person can be barred from buying or owning guns. It also boosted funding by $42 million for community-based mental health treatment.
The response disappointed gun-control advocates, including relatives and friends of Virginia Tech victims, who said people diagnosed with mental illness are less likely than others to commit violence with a firearm.
“The gun lobby likes to blame the gun violence problem on persons with mental illness, and nothing could be further from the truth,” said Lori Haas, state director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Her daughter was shot and injured at Virginia Tech.
“While resources are necessary to increase services, and warranted for those state agencies and private organizations providing services, doing so is not going to stop the gun violence problem in Virginia,” Haas said.
Virginia Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said it was too soon after the Virginia Beach killings to talk politics.
“It is offensive, disrespectful, and tasteless that anyone — including Senator Ebbin and Ms. Haas — would use a tragedy like this to promote a political agenda less than 24 hours after families and an entire community have suffered a loss of this magnitude,” Norment said in an email.
Virginia Beach police said their officers shot and killed the gunman after a lengthy gun battle in which he used two .45-caliber semiautomatic handguns that were purchased legally.
Along with the weapons at the scene, investigators found a sound suppressor and extended magazines, which contain more than the standard number of rounds. Police have not identified a motive for the shooting.
Ebbin’s bill would have prohibited any person from importing, selling, bartering or transferring a firearms magazine designed to hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Eight Republicans voted it down, with six Democrats in favor, in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee on Jan. 28.
Police have not said how many rounds were inside the Virginia Beach shooter’s extended magazines. Internet advertisements for extended magazines for .45-caliber semiautomatic handguns list standard magazines as holding seven to 15 rounds and extended ones as holding 15 to 33 rounds.
Another bill that died in the Virginia House in January would have allowed localities such as Virginia Beach to ban firearms from government buildings such as the one where the attack on Friday occurred. Virginia Beach Council member Guy King Tower said after the shooting that it was regrettable that the city needed state approval to take such actions.
Democratic governors have used executive power at times to tighten gun restrictions. In 2015, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) ordered a ban on guns in state office buildings.
The biggest change in gun laws in Virginia in recent years has been one that relaxed controls. In 2012, then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) signed a bill repealing the state’s one-per-month limit on handgun purchases.
Democrats have repeatedly sought to restore the limit, but without success. New York and other states have complained that the change has contributed to Virginia’s status as a major center of gun trafficking on the East Coast.
Gun-control advocates think public sentiment is moving their way. They said they hit a major milestone in the 2017 elections by turning out as many of their supporters as their opponents did. Democrats won all of the state’s top three elective offices that year, for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Some of those Democrats continued their efforts Saturday. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), in an interview with NPR, said he would continue to push lawmakers to pass gun safety legislation. Northam noted that the GOP-controlled General Assembly killed gun-related bills he had proposed earlier this year as well as the year before. Earlier in the day, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) told MSNBC that it was time to enact “red flag” legislation, background checks and other gun regulations.
So far, it has not translated into success in the legislature. Both parties are expected to use gun control as an issue to mobilize their bases in the November elections, when all seats in the General Assembly will be up for grabs.
At present, the GOP holds two-seat majorities in both the House and Senate. Based on experience, Democrats would have to win control of both chambers to change the status quo.