Kaine (D) and Stewart (R) embody the debate over guns taking place in Virginia and the country at large. The Southern state is home to the NRA, has some of the most lax gun laws in the country and takes pride in its deeply rooted gun culture. In rural southwestern and Southside Virginia, voters reliably elect Second Amendment stalwarts.
But in recent years, and particularly since Virginia Tech, Democrats such as Kaine have been able to win statewide races on promises of stronger gun control. Stewart has an A rating from the NRA; Kaine has an F.
If Virginia were the same state it was in 2001 when now-Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) was running for governor and tried to woo the NRA, Stewart’s approach would be a sure winner.
But by 2013, Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for governor was quite different. The Democrat boasted about his F rating from the NRA and blasted the state’s gun laws. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Ralph Northam, now the governor, followed the same playbook and won Virginia easily.
“I think we’ve entered a turning point on this issue,” said Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “The pro-gun-rights advocates are on the defensive more than I’ve ever seen. The 2001 Mark Warner strategy doesn’t work here anymore, especially given what happened in Florida.”
Although it’s impossible to predict what will drive voters eight months from now, experts say a national movement is growing as corporations cut ties with the NRA and major retailers such as Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods place new limits on gun sales or drop sales of certain types of firearms.
“The evolution on this issue is just continuing, particularly when you’re talking about assault rifles and bump stocks,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst based in Richmond. “It’s a dramatic switch, and it is not hurting the Democrats.”
November’s general election will be a challenge for any Republican in a state where Democrats are on a winning streak, fueled by President Trump’s low approval ratings in voter-rich regions such as Northern Virginia.
Stewart is the best-known candidate in the five-way GOP primary after he came close to beating out Ed Gillespie for the Republican gubernatorial nomination last year.
After his national turn as Clinton’s running mate, Kaine remains popular in the state — especially in Richmond, where he is revered as a former mayor, lieutenant governor and governor.
On Monday, activists from Moms Demand Action, most wearing the red shirts of the movement, gathered on three days’ notice to question Kaine on the likelihood that Congress will change the laws. He softly explained why he takes gun violence personally.
When he was elected to the Richmond City Council in 1994, the city had the nation’s second-highest homicide rate. That year, a family was gunned down in Gilpin Court, a public housing development, and Kaine went to the chaotic scene. He later said he would never forget the funeral and the sight of six white coffins, including one for an unborn girl.
“It really was kind of a scarring experience to deal with a community that was beset with so much violence,” he said Monday.
Kaine keeps in contact with families of some of the victims of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, at the time the deadliest in modern U.S. history. As governor, he closed the loophole that allowed the shooter to purchase a gun even though a judge had declared him dangerously mentally ill.
“It’s kind of a weird thing to say about your own state,” he said. Kaine paused and looked away from the mothers for a few seconds. The only sound was the clicking of cameras. He spoke again with a quivering voice. “But I hoped it would be the worst.”
In 2013, the Senate voted on universal background checks with families from Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in the gallery, reminding Kaine of “the cloud of witnesses that are mentioned in the letter of Paul to the Hebrews,” he quoted from Scripture. The measure fell six votes short.
He did not sound optimistic about change this time, but he said if anything makes a difference it will be the teen survivors of the Parkland shooting. He compared the moment to the Children’s Crusade, when kids marching against segregation in Birmingham, Ala., were attacked with water cannons and faced snarling German shepherds.
“Maybe just like in 1963, a complacent nation needed the voice of young people to shake them out of their complacency and indifference,” he said. “I say ‘maybe’ — I don’t know.”
For the next 45 minutes, he took questions, including one from a public school teacher who begged him to oppose arming teachers, which Stewart — and Trump — support. The idea “puts too much of a burden on the shoulders of teachers,” Kaine said, but he is open to discussing whether armed security should be added to schools.
Told later that Stewart would address the gun-control debate with supporters at a shooting range that night, Kaine said “Wow” and shook his head.
One hundred miles to the north, Elite Shooting Sports hosted its first candidate meet-and-greet for Stewart, who helped the massive indoor range secure a zoning exception to build a 65,000-square-foot facility and spoke at its opening dinner four years ago. The owner and general manager, Greg Wodack, used to run the range at the NRA’s Fairfax County headquarters.
Past the concierge desk, above black leather chairs, the Second Amendment is emblazoned on the wall in giant silver script. Huge televisions, some tuned to women’s boxing that evening, were mounted above a long glass counter that displayed guns for sale, past rows of cases and purses for carrying guns. There’s a cafe.
A mix of men and women, old and young, supporters and newcomers, the crowd appeared to be fully behind gun rights, with several donning NRA caps and camouflage-print gear. Someone wore “Blue Lives Matter” T-shirts in support of law enforcement.
Stewart told them a Democratic super PAC, American Bridge, was following his movements but the tracker had been removed from the event — the first in a series of Stewart “Shoot and Greet” events planned for gun ranges around the state.
After a quick word of empathy for the parents whose children were killed at Parkland, Stewart unleashed a pro-gun, anti-liberal torrent.
“Of course what the left does, what the Democrats do, what Tim Kaine does, they try to exploit this tragedy for their own political ends, to try to limit the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” he said.
He promised to “call them out” and make them “feel shame” for capitalizing on the tragedy, he said to applause. Ticking off a list of shootings, Stewart said each occurred in places were guns are prohibited.
“You know what a gun-free zone really is? It’s not a gun-free zone,” he said.
“It’s an invitation,” someone yelled.
“It’s an invitation,” Stewart confirmed as people throughout the room nodded.
Teachers comfortable with concealed carry must be allowed to carry guns into schools to defend themselves, he said. More claps. Later he suggested the NRA could provide training.
Asked by a woman in the audience how he would deal with pushback from the teachers union, Stewart said it will be up to state legislatures and teachers should be consulted, something he has yet to do himself.
Explaining his position that more guns are the solution, he said there’s never been a mass shooting at a gun show or a gun range.
“You know why?” he asked. “Because that murderer would be living for about 15 seconds. He’d be down and out and he knows it.”
Democrats who want to take away gun rights — something Kaine, the owner of a 12-gauge shotgun, denied he wants to do — have it all wrong, Stewart said, adding, “This is like being upset that your neighbor is having too many kids, so you get castrated.”
The line was a hit. Sort of. “A hell of an analogy,” one man said. “I won’t forget that one,” a woman whispered.
Rick Thomson, who won an AR-15 rifle at a giveaway run by Stewart’s gubernatorial campaign last year, sat in the audience wearing an NRA cap with a tiny rifle pinned on top.
Stewart owns two guns — a 12-gauge shotgun and .22-caliber rifle — but said he hasn’t used either since last summer.
Given the chance to squeeze off a few rounds at his own event, he passed. He didn’t want his poor aim to eclipse his message.
“I’m a terrible marksman,” he said.