VIRGINIA BEACH — One evening, one city still reeling from mass gun violence, two separate gatherings. At a recreation center, residents fearful of too many guns. At a hotel conference room, National Rifle Association members worried about gun restrictions.
The dueling messages have been playing out around Virginia as lawmakers and the NRA rally opposing camps ahead of next week’s General Assembly special session on gun control. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered the July 9 session after a gunman killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building on May 31.
The issue has crystallized what’s at stake in elections this fall, when Republicans try to defend their razor-thin majorities and Democrats try to seize control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than two decades.
While Democrats see an opportunity to recast the legislature in a blue tint that matches recent demographic changes in Virginia, Republicans are sounding an alarm, warning that the consequences this fall could be extensive.
The NRA rally in Virginia Beach on Monday night was closed to the media. But at a similar NRA gathering last week in Fredericksburg, a recording of which was obtained by The Washington Post, the message was dark.
“They want our state,” Del. Margaret B. Ransone (R-Westmoreland) told an audience of mostly gun rights supporters in Fredericksburg. “They want every single member gone in the House and Senate that is Republican. They intentionally want to turn it blue. Gun control, abortion rights, social justice — they’ve named their three; that’s what they want.”
With all 140 seats in the General Assembly on the ballot, Republicans hold a three-seat edge in the House (51 to 48) and a bare majority in the Senate (20 to 19), with one vacant seat in each chamber.
Democrats are running in all but four of the 40 state Senate districts — a modern record. Meanwhile, Republicans are challenging only four Democratic senators, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
On the House side, Democrats are running in all but nine districts — another modern record. But Republicans are leaving 28 Democratic incumbents unchallenged, according to VPAP’s analysis.
“We are on the cusp of changing things, and we need all of you to help this year,” Democratic Senate candidate Missy Cotter Smasal told an audience of about 50 gun-control advocates Monday night at a recreation center in Virginia Beach.
Besides gun-control laws, Democratic majorities could bring “a number of other great things,” said Smasal, a businesswoman and former Navy officer. She mentioned passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, higher funding for schools and environmental protections.
As Smasal spoke in the recreation center, the Republican she is trying to unseat, Sen. William R. DeSteph Jr., addressed nearly 200 at a closed NRA meeting in a hotel near the oceanfront.
Smasal called DeSteph’s appearance at that event “disrespectful and contemptuous” coming so soon after the mass shooting.
“We’re the counterweight to what’s happening in our town right now. We’re the counterweight to that NRA town hall,” Sibel Galindez, who helps run the Hampton Roads chapter of Moms Demand Action, told Smasal’s gathering at the rec center.
Galindez and her group offered to help people travel to Richmond next week for the special legislative session to express support for the gun-control measures outlined by Northam. Those include bans on military-style weapons, high-capacity magazines and devices to help guns shoot faster or quieter; limiting handgun purchases to one per month; a “red-flag law” allowing authorities to seize weapons from someone deemed a danger; and requiring people to report lost or stolen firearms.
Northam has staged his own public meetings around the state to build support for that agenda.
DeSteph, who said he had met several times with members of Moms Demand Action, dismissed Smasal’s comment about his attendance at the private NRA town hall. “It wasn’t my meeting,” he said. “If I knew Moms Demand Action were having a meeting, I probably would’ve sat in on that one, too. . . . I think we need to listen from both sides on every issue. I think that’s the responsible thing to do.”
DeSteph, who collects firearms and has a license to sell them, said he had heard no policy proposals from Northam that would have prevented the mass shooting in his city.
He ticked off a list: “Bump stock” devices to make guns fire faster — already banned by the federal government. Silencers and high-capacity magazines — Virginia Beach already restricts them. And anyway, he said, a trained shooter could simply swap a spent ammunition magazine for a fresh one “in about two-tenths of a second.”
Virginia has already tried a one-gun-per-month law, and “it didn’t prevent anything,” he said. Red-flag laws could be abused by an ex-girlfriend or ex-wife who made false accusations against someone, he said.
“This is a mental health issue, and that’s where we need to focus it,” DeSteph told the audience in the NRA meeting, according to a short video posted by the organization. Gun bans don’t work, he said, citing Chicago and the District as examples of failures.
“I don’t know how to solve it. I don’t know what that catalyst is that flips that switch” and makes someone commit mass violence, he said. He pledged to work with other jurisdictions on a study to pinpoint mental health warning signs.
“But I will tell you right up front there’s no piece of legislation, there’s no piece of any law we could’ve done to stop what happened here,” he told the audience.
The governor’s special session, he said later, is not a sincere effort to try to stop gun violence. “I think this is a distraction,” DeSteph said, noting the scandals that engulfed the state’s top Democrats early this year. Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring both admitted wearing blackface as young adults, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has denied two separate allegations of sexual assault.
The gun session is “completely political,” DeSteph said.
That was a common refrain at the NRA town hall in Fredericksburg last week, as heard on the audio recording. Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) told the group that the special session “is nothing more than politics. This governor’s on an apology tour. He’s on an apology tour. And this is part of his redemption.”
Reeves, who unsuccessfully sought his party’s nomination for lieutenant governor in 2017, is a former Army infantry officer who predicted that some of his Republican colleagues might “waver” when confronted with pressure to act on gun control.
But he said he will not be one who goes “weak-kneed.”
He noted that the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is working to unseat him, targeting him with digital ads and highlighting his involvement with the NRA. “We need your help,” Reeves urged the group.
Similarly, Ransone told the group that Virginia was at risk of being transformed by outsiders. “When folks come here and they want to come to our state, they need to come as citizens of our country and citizens of this commonwealth — not to change the people that we are,” she said.
Ransone’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.
Reeves described overhearing a Democratic colleague, Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (Alexandria), sitting in his office and telling someone that “we will radically change Virginia when we take control.”
He said Ebbin is “from Northern Virginia. He’s really liberal left; he’s . . . the [only] openly gay senator in our Senate.” And Reeves said Ebbin’s agenda “means infanticide is coming, all the gun bills. We’re going to lose the right to work. . . . Minimum wage — just minimum will be $15, but I heard him talking about $20 to $25.”
The crowd reacted in disbelief. “What?” a woman said. “Jesus,” a man muttered.
The minimum wage in Virginia is $7.25 an hour. Democrats tried to raise it to $15 an hour by 2021, but they were defeated by Republicans in the last legislative session.
Reeves confirmed the comments in an interview but clarified that he did not mean to say Ebbin personally advocated a minimum wage above $15 — only that he’s heard Democrats generally say that.
Reeves also said he didn’t mean to offend Ebbin by mentioning his sexual orientation, that he simply wanted to highlight their different perspectives. “Adam’s a friend, but in the same breath, we’re on opposite sides,” Reeves said. “I don’t mean any offense to Adam Ebbin at all. . . . He’s a good dude.”
Ebbin, when told of Reeves’s remarks at the town hall, said he never made any of the comments attributed to him.
“Apparently I’m a radical homosexual who’s misquoted,” Ebbin said sarcastically.
“I did speak to him once on, ‘Couldn’t we agree on universal background checks,’ but I’ve never talked to him about radically changing the course of Virginia,” Ebbin said. “I’ve never heard any Democrat in Virginia or elsewhere that I recall talking about a minimum wage over $15.”
Ebbin said he was most upset that Reeves would invoke his sexual orientation.
“I’m offended, I’m hurt, and I’m shocked,” Ebbin said. “He’s invited me to dinner. We’ve had lunch. I thought that I wasn’t the boogeyman to him, but apparently I’m the boogeyman at election time if it helps him get a few more votes.”