RICHMOND — Republican reaction to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s plan to limit who can own a gun in Virginia ranged from icy to dismissive, while gun-control activists applauded his outspokenness on the polarizing issue.
McAuliffe (D) this week unveiled a package of proposals, including a renewal of the state’s one-a-month limit on handgun purchases and a requirement that buyers at gun shows undergo background checks.
The governor also wants to keep guns away from people convicted of crimes related to domestic violence and to revoke
concealed-handgun permits for parents who are behind on child-support payments.
On the campaign trail last year, McAuliffe spoke out in favor of gun control, a novel move for a Democrat running for governor in a swing state with a history of rejecting efforts to limit gun ownership.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly, however, has shown zero appetite for curtailing gun ownership, especially next year, when all seats will be on the November ballot. In fact, Republicans say McAuliffe’s legislative package is simply pandering to the left, much like his work on abortion rights and climate change, they say.
“The governor is a pure political animal and always has been,” said Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor. “This is purely a political play on his part. I don’t think he has any expectation that any of this is viable or defensible. He’s playing to his base on an election-year issue that he wrongly believes resonates.”
McAuliffe, who unveiled his plan Monday, the day after the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, insisted that he wanted to reach a compromise on the policy front.
“Keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of criminals and others prone to violence shouldn’t be a political issue, and it won’t become one as long as Virginia leaders put the safety of their constituents ahead of extreme, special-interest politics,” said Rachel Thomas, a spokeswoman for McAuliffe.
Public opinion on some of the most controversial proposals appears to be on McAuliffe’s side. A limit on purchases to one handgun per month became law in 1993 under Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D), but it was repealed during the tenure of Republican Robert F. McDonnell nearly two decades later.
Shortly after that, a Washington Post poll found the majority of voters, 71 percent, favored the limit.
Another Post poll taken in May 2013 found even more Virginia voters, 86 percent, supported a law requiring background checks for gun-show purchases and 74 percent of them “strongly” supported the requirement.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) declined to comment on the specific policy proposals, but his spokesman also derided McAuliffe’s announcement as a political stunt.
“It is very clear where the House of Delegates stands on the Second Amendment. It is disappointing that the governor, who claims to be a consensus-builder focused on jobs, is making a divisive social issue like gun control the centerpiece of his legislative agenda,” said Howell’s spokesman, Matt Moran.
McAuliffe has said curtailing crime through gun control would make the state safer and more attractive to economic development.
But the state Republican Party labeled McAuliffe’s proposal an “unconstitutional gun grab” intended to fire up the Democratic base after a lackluster turnout in this year’s mid-term election.
“If Virginia progressives don’t get angry about something — and quickly — Democrats will stand to repeat their embarrassing 2014 mid-term performance here in Virginia in 2015,” said Shaun Kenney, executive director of the state GOP.
Gun-control advocacy groups applauded McAuliffe’s package of bills, which Democratic lawmakers intend to introduce in next year’s legislative session.
“These common-sense proposals are just the latest example of efforts by legislators and governors to keep guns out of the hands of the most dangerous people,” said Mark Kelly, who runs Americans for Responsible Solutions with his wife, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). “These proposals, were they to become law, would save lives.”
Lori Haas of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has been active on gun issues since her daughter, Emily, was wounded in the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.
“Why is it suggested that saving lives is political or particular to either party?” Haas said. “It should be of concern and critical to all Virginians, regardless of their background, political party or other description.”
Millions of dollars were devoted to highlighting the issue in last year’s statewide races. The political wing of Americans for Responsible Solutions spent $600,000, and the National Rifle Association’s political arm spent $500,000.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.