Gun-control advocates say they hit a major milestone during the Democratic sweep in Virginia: They turned out as many of their supporters to the polls as their opponents did.
Exit polls showed that gun policy was the second most important issue in the governor’s race, and voters motivated by guns were evenly split between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie.
That’s a shift from data usually showing that voters casting ballots based on guns are overwhelmingly opposed to gun control and say they want to protect their Second Amendment rights against new limits.
“It’s very significant because what commentators said for years, our problem is there’s an intensity gap. Well, no more,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “The intensity gap, I would say, is now DOA.”
Gun-control advocates have long pointed to polls showing broad support for universal background checks for firearm purchases and banning assault weapons. But voters haven’t always prioritized those issues at the ballot box, making it difficult to channel popular support for those policies into law.
A post-election poll commissioned by Everytown found that Northam, the lieutenant governor, won those who named guns as their top issue by double digits. Another poll commissioned by the gun control group founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had similar findings.
Northam, who beat Gillespie by nine points, campaigned on restoring Virginia's overturned law that restricted handgun sales to one a month. He also said he favored universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons as well as high-capacity magazines. Gillespie touted his A rating from the National Rifle Association and vowed to block new restrictions on guns.
Virginia is a key battleground for gun-control organizations trying to compete with those who favor gun rights. It’s home to the NRA’s headquarters, and it has a Southern gun culture and some of the loosest gun laws in the nation.
Democrats used to tread carefully around gun issues until 2007, when Virginia Tech became the scene of what was then the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Thirty-three people died, including the shooter.
In the aftermath, a Washington Post poll found that 58 percent of Virginians favored stronger gun control.
Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic governor at the time, pushed unsuccessfully for a state law that would require background checks on sales at gun shows. He had better luck — and bipartisan help — closing a loophole in the state’s laws that had allowed the Virginia Tech shooter to buy a gun even though a judge had declared him dangerously mentally ill less than two years earlier.
The growth in population and political clout in urban regions of the state where gun control has support made it feasible for Kaine and others to embrace gun limits. By the time Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) ran in 2013, he celebrated his F rating from the NRA.
This year’s governor’s race coincided with a string of high-profile mass shootings, including one at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, the massacre in Las Vegas that left 59 dead and the slayings of more than two dozen at a Texas church two days before Election Day.
Everytown, which is bankrolled by former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, spent at least $2.3 million on Virginia’s races. The NRA spent at least $1.5 million on commercials in Virginia, according to the Northam campaign.
A spokeswoman for the NRA did not respond to a request for comment. But the head of the largest state gun-rights group said that the election results showed signs of complacency, not a voter revolt against guns.
“These things are like a pendulum, but now this election turnout has energized gun owners big time,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. “The problem I see is too many gun owners are sleepy. Now I think they have woken up as a sleeping giant.”
But gun-control advocates see the opposite: Democrats can embrace gun control and win.
“There’s been a concern among Democrats that if they talk about guns, the Republican NRA voters are going to be more enthusiastic and come out in full force,” said Jason Lindsay, who leads Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, a small grass-roots group that formed after last year’s mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando.
“The crystal-clear takeaway from Virginia is Democrats need to stand up and talk unapologetically about the need to make the safety of our communities a priority while protecting the Second Amendment,” he said.
Whether Virginia was a fluke can be tested next year, when every seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, 33 U.S. Senate seats and 36 governorships are on the ballot.
The recently rebranded group founded by Giffords, the congresswoman who became a prominent gun-control advocate after surviving a 2011 shooting, thinks its message — that Republicans are too extreme on guns — will resonate with the kind of suburban voters who powered Northam's victory.
In particular, they see opportunities to unseat Republicans in congressional districts won by Hillary Clinton in California and New Jersey, as well as suburban districts in Florida, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
“We have a great opportunity around the country to talk to suburban voters who are fed up with the direction the Republican Party is going,” said Isabelle James, the group’s political director.
“If we can draw their attention to some of the extreme policies that voters maybe haven’t heard about, we are going to have huge success.”
They are counting on voters like Jacqueline Teti of Alexandria, who has been passionate about gun control for a decade but ignored state races until she voted for Northam this year.
The issue held new urgency for her this year after the gunman opened fire at the congressional baseball practice while she was nearby with her child, buying croissants.
“I am a very, very strong believer in gun control, and we really need more politicians to get on things like banning assault rifles and supporting common-sense gun laws,” said Teti, a 35-year-old graduate student. “We’ve been complacent for a really long time.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.