Virginia Del. Tim Hugo this week expressed support for a “red flag” gun bill that would remove guns from some people considered a risk to themselves or others, an apparent shift for the Fairfax Republican who faces a tough reelection challenge in November.
Hugo is chair of the House GOP caucus, which joined Senate Republicans last month to shut down a special legislative session on gun control that had been convened by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) after the mass shooting in Virginia Beach in May. The Republicans ended the session after 90 minutes without considering a single bill.
Hugo, who served in the U.S. Army Reserve during the 1990s, is seeking an eighth term in a district that straddles Fairfax and Prince William counties, a shrinking island of red in increasingly blue Northern Virginia.
His opponent, Democrat Dan Helmer, is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and has been campaigning on gun control, a theme that has become even more prominent since the shootings this month in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. Helmer has been endorsed by the gun control organization founded by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who also appeared at a fundraiser for him.
During an unsuccessful bid for Congress last year, Helmer videotaped himself buying a semiautomatic rifle at a local gun show without a background check in less than 10 minutes to demonstrate the accessibility of weapons.
Virginia is one of only four states with legislative elections this November and the only state where those votes will determine the balance of power in the legislature. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot, with Republicans protecting razor-thin majorities in both chambers. The swing districts are suburban areas where increasingly urgent concerns about gun violence could make the difference for voters.
On Friday, Hugo said his decision to back a bill introduced last month by Del. Jason S. Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) was not related to the election.
“As a Delegate, I have consistently voted to keep firearms out of the hands of violent criminals and the mentally ill, and to institute harsher penalties for criminals who possess guns illegally,” Hugo said in a statement that highlighted his support for a 2016 law that makes it a felony for anyone with a permanent protective order for family abuse to possess a firearm.
The statement also noted that Hugo co-sponsored a 2008 law that requires questions related to mental health to be on state background check consent forms for new gun owners.
His support for expanding gun owners’ rights has earned the delegate an “A” rating by the National Rifle Association.
Advocates for stronger gun laws said the bill that Hugo is backing is relatively weak and mimics mental health laws that are already in place.
The bill would prohibit anyone who is the subject of an emergency order of protection from possessing a firearm, and would allow police to take that person into custody. It would also require a series of steps, including hearings and mental health evaluations, before those court orders are issued.
If a judge determines the person does not pose a significant danger to himself or others, that person would be released and the weapon would be returned.
Lori Haas, senior director of advocacy for the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said the legislation too closely resembles state mental health laws that are already on the books.
“This is not an extreme risk law,” Haas said, using her organization’s preferred term for red flag legislation. “It replicates, very badly, some of the emergency and temporary orders that law enforcement officials are already using and doesn’t thoroughly address the removal of a firearm.”
Haas said the bill would leave out people considered at risk of violence who are not diagnosed as mentally ill, which is often the case.
“The biggest risk factors for violence is history of violence, anger, hate, misuse or abuse of alcohol or drugs,” she said. “We need to address persons whose behavior indicates a risk of violence and temporarily remove their firearms.”
The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Another gun rights group, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, opposes the legislation because it removes firearms. Philip Van Cleave, the group’s president, said he wants a greater focus on mental health treatment.
But he said the legislation has some worthwhile provisions, including a requirement that anyone who falsely accuses another person of meriting an order of protection would be subject to felony criminal charges.
“There are some positive things in the bill, but it’s still not where it needs to be,” Van Cleave said.
Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said suburban Republicans like Hugo and Miyares are walking a fine line on volatile issues like gun control as Democrats make inroads in those communities.
Those Republicans in moderate areas feel pressure to side with their party in larger political battles, such as the one that occurred in Richmond last month, when the GOP leaders abruptly ended the special session.
But they also can’t appear to be out of sync with their changing districts on guns and other divisive topics, Farnsworth said.
“Delegate Hugo has to do something to appeal to suburban constituents who are moving away from a Republican Party that is represented by President Trump,” Farnsworth said, noting that the delegate won his 2017 election by just 106 votes.
“By offering a response on a gun control measure, Hugo is trying to demonstrate to his voters that he is not simply another Republican willing to shut down debate on the issue before the election,” he said.
Helmer called Hugo’s support of the Miyares bill disingenuous after voting against a host of other bills that would have more aggressively limited the ability for people subject to “extreme risk” protection orders to possess firearms.
Any attempt to find common ground between Republicans and Democrats on the gun issue should have taken place during last month’s special session, he said.
“We have more people dying from gun violence every year in Virginia [than] die in car accidents and none of that has caused Republicans to move,” Helmer said. “The only thing that’s caused movement right now is the number of days before the election.”
Laura Vozzella in Richmond contributed to this report.