But the freshman congresswoman is backing a raft of gun-control measures, and not only those with bipartisan support, such as universal background checks and “red flag” laws that would temporarily take guns from people deemed to be dangerous. She also wants to ban military-style weapons.
A Democrat who unseated Republican Dave Brat in the suburbs outside Richmond last year, Spanberger is unabashed in her position on guns, which she says is largely in sync with the voters in her conservative district.
A new Washington Post-ABC poll backs her up. The survey found that Americans — of both parties — overwhelmingly support expanded background checks for gun buyers and allowing law enforcement to temporarily seize weapons from troubled individuals. A majority also supports a nationwide ban on assault weapons and a ban on high-capacity magazine clips, the survey found.
Election results and polling data haven’t swayed Republican leaders who showed no willingness to take action on gun legislation when they returned to Capitol Hill last week, after a summer recess in which dozens died in mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton, Ohio, and Odessa, Tex.
Following a shooting in May in Virginia Beach that left 12 dead, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) convened a special session of the General Assembly to take up gun control, but Republican leaders abruptly shut it down after 90 minutes without debating legislation.
Spanberger joined fellow Democrats over the August recess and last week in Washington to urge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to hold floor votes on House-passed legislation.
The bills would expand background checks and close the “Charleston loophole,” which allowed Dylann Roof to buy the gun he used to kill nine parishioners in 2015 at Mother Emanuel church in the South Carolina city.
Constituents have been calling offices in tears begging for action, she said.
“This is just grossly political, and people are dying because of it,” she said. “The Senate is willing to not uphold the will of the American people, and it’s all political. It’s shameful.”
Tina Ramirez, the only Republican so far raising money to challenge Spanberger in 2020, said existing gun laws are sufficient. She said gaps in the mental health system were partially to blame for the proliferation mass shootings.
Ramirez, who leads a nonprofit organization devoted to religious liberty, doesn’t mention the issue on her campaign website.
“The real issue here is not more government,” she said in an interview. “We need to stop looking to the government to be the solution for everything.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which is already targeting Spanberger’s district, framed the congresswoman’s support for gun control as too liberal for her central Virginia district.
“Abigail Spanberger is no moderate and it’s not surprising she’s joining the socialist Democrats in stripping away Virginians’ 2nd Amendment rights,” NRCC spokeswoman Camille Gallo said in a statement.
While Ramirez’s position could help in a GOP nomination contest, it’s unclear how voters will react in the general election.
“The issue of background checks in particular puts suburban Republicans in a bind,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and considers the district a toss-up at this early stage. “Expanding gun control is a loser in a Republican primary, but opposing expanded background checks is a loser in a general election in districts such as these.”
Lori Haas, the Virginia state director at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, rejects the notion, once orthodoxy in Virginia, that conservative voters are against gun control.
“Doing nothing has become so politically toxic to Republicans that they’re crossing the aisle and voting for Democrats,” said Haas, whose daughter was wounded in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech.
Spanberger said her work in law enforcement and the CIA informs her position on gun control. It’s because of her experiences with guns, not despite them, that she favors stricter regulation, she said.
“What responsible gun owner thinks everyone and anyone should have access to a firearm without a little bit of precaution taken to make sure that those who have a history of violent harm can’t buy a firearm?” she said.
While training to serve as a federal officer with the postal inspection service, she practiced multiple times a week for several hours at a time on all aspects of gun safety.
She was taught the expected skills of loading the magazine and firing at a target. But she also learned how to move through the world with a firearm on her hip: how to clean it, how to take it apart and how to cover it with her jacket even on sweltering days.
Every six months during her 2½ years with the agency, she spent a full day at the gun range requalifying on her Beretta and side holster. She never shot her weapon on the job but used it all the time to serve search warrants and clear rooms.
At the CIA, she trained on a variety of firearms to prepare for escape if ambushed.
There have also been surreal moments. When she was first married, her husband, who did not grow up around guns, would find it jarring to wake up to the “ch-ch” sound of his wife loading her weapon, she said. She hasn’t kept a gun in her home since starting a family.
“The norm for me is, this is a tool,” she said. “For my dad, this was a tool for his job. For my uncle, it was tool for hunting.”
Spanberger left the CIA in 2014 and moved home to Virginia, where she joined the local chapter of Moms Demand Action.
There, she met Gena Reeder of Chesterfield and others like her who have helped swing the once deep-red area blue, largely on the basis of social issues like gun control.
Reeder, an outspoken Democrat who has lived in the district for more than 20 years, said she has seen her neighbors lose faith in GOP leaders who balk at tightening gun laws.
“The suburban districts are starting to lose their appetite for Republican representation, I think, because of this very issue,” she said.
Democrats held a Capitol Hill hearing Sept. 10, featuring gun violence victims and advocates, a retired police chief, a trauma surgeon, a mayor and a hunter who is a veteran, all discussing why guns should be more regulated.
Spanberger, 40, can mark the passage of time by major shootings.
She was in college in 1999 when Columbine happened. Then came Virginia Tech, which hit home for the Virginia native. One of her kids started attending a new school in 2012, when 20 first-graders were massacred in Newtown, Conn.
She recently overheard a conversation between her 8-year-old and 5-year-old daughters about the first week of school.
“Well, maybe that’s a lock-and-hide drill,” the third-grader said.
“What’s that?” the kindergartner asked.
“Here I have an 8-year-old explaining to a 5-year-old how she’s going to train to hide in a closet in case someone comes to kill them in their school,” she said, speaking through tears.
“As their parent and as a lawmaker, I can’t protect them. . . . It’s disgusting.”
This is part of an occasional series of stories about Spanberger’s first year in office.