“Guns kill more than 1,000 Virginians every year,” a female narrator begins in one of the spots. “But year after year, and tragedy after tragedy, Republicans in Richmond refuse to even vote on common-sense gun reforms. Virginians are working together to end the gun violence epidemic, but we need allies in Richmond to get it done. It’s time to vote out Republican legislators who would rather stand with the NRA than take a stand against gun violence. Vote November 5th.”
That 30-second ad, titled “More than 1,000,” shows images of candlelight vigils, gun-control activists and newspaper headlines, including one referring to the aborted special session in July.
The ads from the Giffords group — intended to boost Democratic turnout statewide — most heavily target voters in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Virginia Beach who favor gun control but tend to skip “off-off year” elections like those in November with no statewide contest on the ballot.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election next month, with control of both chambers up for grabs. Republicans are defending thin majorities of 51 to 48 in the House of Delegates and 20 to 19 in the Senate, with one vacancy in each chamber.
Democrats have made gun control a marquee issue in the months since a gunman killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building on May 31. In the aftermath, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) convened a special legislative session to take up gun control, but Republicans shut it down in 90 minutes without considering a single bill. They referred the legislation to a commission for study, promising to reconvene after the election.
The ads criticize Republicans generally, without naming any specific candidates.
“We knew Virginia Democrats would be well funded by out-of-state liberal PACs,” said Parker Slaybaugh, spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights). “The outside gun control groups have meddled in our elections for years, so this is nothing new and doesn’t change our strategy.”
Republican senators and delegates have mostly been in lockstep on the issue of guns, saying they do not support measures that infringe on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.
A handful of Republican legislators backed a measure they called a “red flag” law ahead of the special session, but their version would not have allowed authorities to take weapons away from someone deemed a risk to themself or others. Instead, it would have let them lock up the person — an extension of existing involuntary commitment laws for the mentally ill.
A Republican running for an open state House seat in the Richmond suburbs is one exception. Mary Margaret Kastelberg has called for more background checks, limits on magazine size and a “red flag” law that would allow authorities to seize weapons. Her Democratic rival, Rodney Willett, also supports gun-control measures and has questioned Kastelberg’s willingness to buck the House speaker if elected, since Cox has backed her financially.
The recent Washington Post-Schar School survey found overwhelming majorities of Virginia voters favor expanding background checks and “red flag” laws that allow authorities to temporarily take weapons away from someone deemed a danger.
But the voters most concerned about gun policy split almost evenly between supporting Democratic candidates, 47 percent, and Republican candidates, 44 percent, suggesting that both sides of the gun-control debate are energized.
National gun-control groups have given millions to Democrats — one group, Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, pledged $2.5 million — while the National Rifle Association gave $200,000 to Republicans in the largest single donation it has ever made in Virginia.
One of the ads from Giffords, titled “Crisis,” opens with snippets of TV news coverage of mass shootings in Virginia Beach and elsewhere.
“America is in crisis,” a male narrator begins. “But when they had a chance to act on gun reform, Virginia Republicans ran away. Every member of the Virginia legislature is up for reelection this November. Virginians support common-sense gun reform. We deserve legislators who do, too.”
An aborted legislative session is not typical fodder for an ad campaign, since “it’s a little bit weeds-y, a little bit procedural,” said Joanna Belanger, political director for the Giffords group. But she said the quick end of the session resonated with voters previewing the ads, connecting that to general “inaction” on gun control.
“They’re immediately frustrated that it was shut down so quickly,” she said. “This legislature had a chance to act on this and they have opted not to.”
The third ad, “NRA,” references the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, where 32 people died in 2007. It mimics a message being typed out across a computer screen.
“Since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, more than 10,000 people have been killed by guns in Virginia,” it reads. “And every year, the NRA spends thousands to defeat anyone with the courage to make it stop. Every member of the Virginia legislature is up for reelection this November. It’s time to take our power back. We’re throwing the NRA out of Richmond. Will you join us? #VoteThemOut.”
Catherine Mortensen, a spokeswoman for the NRA, said that “big city financiers seeking to buy this election have committed more than $5 million to gun control groups. They may outspend the NRA, but they will never outwork us.”