RICHMOND — Hundreds of gun rights and gun-control advocates descended on Virginia’s state Capitol on Monday, rallying in below-freezing temperatures and buttonholing lawmakers to press an old cause with new fervor.
The General Assembly has more than 100 gun-related bills to take up over the 60-day session that began last week. While guns have always been a hot-button issue in Virginia, this year’s battle mirrors the one raging at the national level, with despair over senseless deaths mixing with fears of unchecked executive power.
On one side were those motivated by a string of mass shootings across the nation, including one in August that killed two Roanoke journalists on live TV. They came on Lobby Day — one set aside each year for amateur arm-twisters to press their cases with elected leaders — to demonstrate their exasperation and determination to curb the violence.
On the other side were those angered by actions that Virginia’s governor and attorney general, as well President Obama, have taken in response to the shootings. Those activists expressed fear that overreaching executives are stripping law-abiding citizens of the power to defend themselves.
Sharon Burnham of Roanoke held a sign outside the Capitol with photos of four gun victims she knew: two killed in the 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting; a next-door neighbor’s daughter, slain in Baltimore with her boyfriend for reasons unknown; and her 43-year-old stepson, who took his life amid a battle with depression and a fight for custody of his son.
“It’s reasonable to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in, and that’s all we’re asking for,” said Burnham, 60, a former federal prosecutor. “We should not fear going to a church, to a mall, to walk down the street and wonder if that person with a gun is about to attack us.”
Burnham said she had the feeling that the gun-control movement was gaining steam as she traveled to the Capitol on a bus with members of the Blue Ridge Coalition Against Gun Violence.
“We have 50 people on a bus this year, with a waiting list,” she said. “Last year, we had two vans with a total of 20 people. The year before that, it was a car with three people.”
Gun rights groups also bused in supporters. They, too, said they felt that this was a moment of critical importance to their movement. In light of gun-control moves made single-handedly by Obama, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), many of them said democracy was at stake.
“It’s not so much the gun that’s the issue, it’s about the attack on the freedoms and liberties that our founders wanted us to have,” said Wendell Walker of Lynchburg, a Republican Party activist. “This is part of the slippery slope. When you start removing people’s freedoms and privileges, where does it end?”
As national groups on both sides of the debate try out messages and tactics in Virginia, the state that prides itself as the birthplace of American democracy was again serving as a laboratory for the rest of the nation. All of that is playing out next door to the nation’s capital, in a swing state that will be critical to determining who takes the White House this year, a place where gun politics are in an unusual state of flux.
It seemed to mark a new day in Virginia gun politics in 2013, when McAuliffe won the governor’s race while bragging about an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association. Until then, Democrats running statewide took pains not to offend the group, which is headquartered in the state. Democrats running for president this year also have unabashedly embraced gun control.
But that stance had mixed results in Virginia’s fall legislative elections. In a state whose deeply blue Washington suburbs and scattered urban centers are in a constant tug-of-war with its red rural and exurban territory, Everytown for Gun Safety, a group bankrolled by former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), poured $2.3 million into TV commercials for two fiercely contested state Senate races. The ads likely helped Democrat Jeremy McPike defeat Manassas Mayor Harry J. “Hal” Parrish II (R) in Northern Virginia, political observers said last year. But in a Richmond-area district that spans urban, suburban and rural territory, the TV spots did not aid Democrat Dan Gecker — and possibly backfired to the benefit of now-Sen. Glen Sturtevant (R-Richmond).
Emily Tisch Sussman, campaign director for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, sees gun control as an issue that is quickly gaining unabashed acceptance for Democrats, as was the case in recent years with gay marriage.
“Same -sex marriage had been used as a wedge issue to turn out the conservative base, but Democrats didn’t see it as a safe place to be,” she said. “But the politics really flipped on that, where it became unacceptable for many Democratic voters to have their elected [officials] be against the issue. And we’re starting to see that same evolution on gun issues.”
Conservatives subscribed to the gay marriage analogy as well — as a warning that courts and overreaching executives are imposing policies against the will of the people.
McAuliffe addressed a crowd of gun-control activists at the Bell Tower in Capitol Square on Monday afternoon, along with the parents of slain WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker. He made note of his executive order banning guns from state office buidings and ticked off other goals, including closing a loophole that allows gun buyers to avoid background checks if they purchase from private sellers. He also gave a nod to Herring, who recommended that Virginia stop recognizing concealed-handgun permits from 25 states with standards looser than Virginia’s.
“We’re just warming up,” McAuliffe said.
Sen. Charles W. “Bill” Carrico (R-Grayson) took to the Senate floor to vent about Herring’s action related to rescinding reciprocity agreements. It is something that Herring and his supporters describe as common sense — and a matter of Virginia law, which calls for honoring weapons permits only from states with standards similar to Virginia’s.
But for Carrico, a retired state trooper whose rural district in far southwest borders Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia, revoking reciprocity makes carrying a gun unworkable. He noted one spot in his district where the line between Virginia and Tennessee runs down the middle of the street.
“In Bristol, Virginia, you can stand on State Street,” he said, “and depending on which side your holster’s on, you could be in violation of the law.”