RICHMOND — Virginia’s legislature prides itself on moderation and civility, but there’s at least one issue where one side would rather fight than give an inch of compromise: guns.
Even in a year when Republicans have shown a willingness to consider the long-taboo topic of Medicaid expansion. Even as leadership has welcomed the first transgender delegate, the first Latinas, the first open lesbian.
Even amid compromise on criminal justice reform, and as lawmakers pose once-unthinkable challenges to the state’s most powerful corporation, Dominion Energy, guns appear to be untouchable.
Even after another school shooting in Florida on Valentine’s Day.
“It’s senseless. My heart goes out,” Del. Thomas C. Wright Jr. (R-Lunenberg) said Thursday. “But when it comes to the constitutional right to defend yourself and your family, that's something that’s guaranteed.”
Wright chairs Subcommittee 1 of the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, which is where most gun bills go and never come back in the Republican-controlled House.
This year his subcommittee has killed a host of bills, including one that would have required a minor to get parental permission before keeping guns in the home. It was sponsored by Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News) after a constituent complained about being unable to take away guns from a child who had fallen in with a bad crowd.
Another bill would have required licensed home day-care facilities to keep guns locked up while children were being cared for. Sponsored by Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), the bill came after a 4-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed himself with a gun he found at day care.
Yet another would have let localities forbid the carrying of firearms or ammunition at major public events. That one, sponsored by Del. David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville), was a response to last summer’s violent white supremacist rally in which militia members dressed like law enforcement and brandished weapons.
In fact, no legislation survives in this year’s General Assembly related to problems raised by the events in Charlottesville. State Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) had supported bills that would allow state police to help local and federal officials identify hate groups, as well as a bill to prohibit organized groups from marching and brandishing weapons in a threatening way. Neither made it out of committee.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” Herring said. “It should be a wake-up call to everyone.”
Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a moderate with close ties to members of both parties, won election last fall partly on promises of “common-sense” gun-control measures. A Quinnipiac poll last summer found that a slight majority of Virginians — 51 percent — support stricter gun laws in general. And 91 percent said they favor requiring background checks for all gun buyers, something the General Assembly continues to resist.
Shortly after the session convened last month, a Senate committee killed all but one of Northam’s gun-control bills. The one that survived — which would have prohibited the use of “bump stocks,” the device that last year’s Las Vegas shooter used to make his weapons fire like automatic machine guns — failed later, in a different committee.
And that was despite tearful testimony from a survivor of the Las Vegas shooting in which 58 people died.
Opposition to any gun restrictions “is as pure as any sort of religious doctrine,” said Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax). He won House approval for a “Stop Gun Violence” license plate this year, but only after Republicans dictated that money raised by the plate go to mental-health services — an assertion that mental illness is the problem, not guns themselves.
“There’s no logic, no facts, no figures — they’re blind to all that when it comes to this,” Simon said. “And these are folks that are very reasonable on all kinds of other issues.”
House Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said it’s the Democrats who are unreasonable, because the logical extension of their position is that all guns should be confiscated.
“What do they propose that they think would stop an incident like what happened in Florida?” Gilbert said. “If they’re saying that firearms are dangerous instruments and should not be available to people in a free society, then the logical conclusion is that . . . nobody gets to possess a firearm because it can be used for evil things.”
Even modest bills, such as the proposal to lock up guns in a day care, are efforts to chip away at a fundamental constitutional right, Gilbert said: “The agenda toward taking firearms away from law-abiding people is ultimately insatiable.”
Pro-gun groups give to primarily Republican lawmakers in Virginia. In the past election cycle, the National Rifle Association donated $54,630 and the Virginia Citizens Defense League gave $56,000, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. But those totals paled next to the more than $2.4 million in contributions made by anti-gun groups, with most of that coming from the New York-based Everytown for Gun Safety, according to VPAP.
Democrats gained ground in the House last year, but Republicans still control both chambers of the legislature. And while the new balance of power has seen a flowering of bipartisanship, at least one of the new delegates said he was not surprised that guns are the issue that stands apart.
“It’s their firewall. It’s the issue that Republicans refuse to moderate on,” said Del. Chris L. Hurst (D-Blacksburg) . Hurst is intimately familiar with gun violence — his girlfriend, Alison Parker, was the Roanoke television news reporter who was killed during a live broadcast in 2015.
Hurst subsequently ran for office as a gun owner who supports modest restrictions, such as universal background checks and limits on ammunition magazines. The Florida school shooting, he said, made the lack of action all the more frustrating.
“I got a text from a law enforcement officer in my district this morning saying when the hell’s it all gonna end,” he said. “I think that everybody except for a select few in this commonwealth want to address this issue. Those select few are in a position to make sure that nothing gets done, however.”
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.