RICHMOND — When Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) incensed the gun rights community Tuesday by announcing that Virginia will no longer recognize out-of-state concealed-handgun permits, the state Republican Party moved fast.
It sent out a fundraising blast, remade the party home page and tagged social media with #HerringHates2A. Nearly 1,200 people signed an online petition declaring, “Tell Democrats like Mark Herring, Terry McAuliffe and Hillary Clinton that we won’t let them take away our constitutional rights!”
Republicans aim to capitalize on the political backlash to what they consider executive overreach at a time when the stakes are high in Virginia. Presidential contenders are trying to woo the commonwealth’s coveted swing-state voters, and the 2017 races for governor and attorney general are well underway.
Herring’s action and the swift response show that each side thinks gun issues will inspire its base — a reality that played out in this year’s Virginia legislative elections.
Everytown for Gun Safety, an activist group associated with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, poured millions of dollars into legislative races that concluded last month. In the end, Democrats claimed that the cash helped Jeremy McPike comfortably defeat Manassas Mayor Hal Parrish for a state Senate seat and narrowed the margin in Republican Glen Sturtevant’s win over Dan Gecker in their state Senate race.
“What I find so fascinating about it is it comes in the wake of the Bloomberg buy during the election,” said Bob Holsworth, a former political science professor and a principal of DecideSmart, a Richmond public-policy consulting firm.
“Democrats believe that ultimately in Virginia they’re going to be helped, not harmed by taking a strong stance on gun regulation,” Holsworth added. “And the Republicans obviously believe this is something that’s going to be positive for them.”
Gone are the days when Democrats — in Virginia and across the country — felt compelled to tiptoe around gun control for fear of alienating conservative voters, political observers have said. In 2013, McAuliffe won the governorship of the commonwealth with a full-throated call for universal background checks and has not hesitated to repeat the message every time an act of gun violence shatters the calm of a community or college campus.
But there still are many outspoken gun enthusiasts in Virginia who vote.
Republican Del. C. Todd Gilbert said his constituents in the rural Shenandoah Valley are infuriated as he has rarely seen before.
“I live in a part of the world where people are self-reliant,” he said. “They don’t rely for the most part on the police to keep them safe. That may happen in urban areas where people are willing to live like that.”
He said residents were “deeply offended” by what they see as Herring’s move — with the blessing of the Virginia State Police — to revoke concealed-carry agreements with 25 states, because, Herring said, those states did not have Virginia’s high standards for concealed-carry permits. As a result, six of those states will no longer recognize permits held by Virginians.
“It’s already backfiring,” he said. “We in Virginia have a very strong tradition of Democrats and Republicans both protecting our Second Amendment rights.”
Then Whitbeck turned his attention to Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democrats’ sole declared candidate for governor, asking why the former state senator from the Eastern Shore had been silent on the issue. In his announcement Tuesday, Herring said the laws in 25 states are lax compared with Virginia’s.
Asked to comment Wednesday, Northam’s office responded with support for Herring’s move, which Democrats say applies Virginia’s handgun standards to all who step foot in the state, regardless of their jurisdiction of residency.
“I believe there can be common ground that respects the right to bear arms and also protects the safety of our communities,” Northam said in a statement. “We need to enforce existing Virginia law, as well as continue to pursue policy that will keep our citizens safe.”
All eyes have been on Northam since September, when Herring said he would seek a second term as attorney general — not run for governor. Yet on issues such as gun control, same-sex marriage, abortion and illegal immigration, it is Herring who embodies the state Democratic Party’s agenda, said Holsworth, the public-policy consultant.
“The days of this office simply being the state’s law firm are gone,” he said.