RICHMOND, Va. — Days after Virginia Democrats' astounding Election Day successes, one of the state's most influential gun rights groups sent a warning to its members.
"Gun control will be coming at us hard and heavy," the Virginia Citizens Defense League said in an email with the subject line "2017 Elections and the path ahead."
With the Democrats gaining clout, the group said, it expects a push for legislation in Virginia to implement universal background checks, ban assault weapons and restrict handgun purchases. The Defense League has urged members to reach out to non-gun owners to boost ownership and take off work for a lobbying day in January.
Democrats swept all three statewide offices and picked up at least 15 Virginia House seats, nearly wiping out the Republicans' overwhelming majority. Meanwhile, the GOP controls the Senate 21-19, which would make getting landmark legislation through both chambers difficult. Still, lawmakers said they expect movement on gun-control measures that could attract bipartisan support.
Guns are a perennial issue in this swing state that's home to the National Rifle Association's headquarters and site of one of the country's deadliest mass shootings, at Virginia Tech in 2007. Nationally, gun-control advocates point to election night outcomes in Virginia and elsewhere, New Jersey and Washington state included, as a sign of momentum heading into next year's midterm elections.
In November, "voters proved that they were willing to vote on the issue of gun safety ... Make no mistake: Heading into the 2018 midterm elections, the momentum is on the side of the gun violence prevention movement," said one gun control group, Moms Demand Action, in a statement.
The NRA didn't respond to interview requests from The Associated Press.
Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for Virginia's Senate Republican caucus, said he expects lots of gun-control legislation to be filed. But he doubts much would pass.
David Hancock, manager of gun seller Bob Moates Sport Shop in Midlothian, echoed that sentiment.
"We're not expecting any major changes right away," he said.
But Democrats say the sea change means they'll have more committee representation, more sway in general and in some cases might need just one Republican vote to secure a gun measure's passage.
For Del. Kathleen Murphy, who represents parts of two northern Virginia counties, gun control is personal.
Her brother was shot to death during a robbery and she doesn't want another family to go through what hers did. She plans to reintroduce a bill that would make a second conviction for domestic abuse a felony, making those convicted unable to own guns. It's the type of commonsense measure that has failed before but might have a chance this year, she said.
"I don't understand the refusal of people on the other side to recognize that we can do something in a bipartisan way to make guns safer and to make our children and families safer from gun violence without harming peoples' right to carry arms," she said.
Del. John Bell, another northern Virginia Democrat and an Air Force veteran, said he plans to introduce several gun-related bills after campaigning heavily on the issue. One would require in-person training to obtain a concealed handgun permit. Currently, training can be done online or by video.
Another proposal already filed would ban bump stocks, the device used by a gunman who opened fire in Las Vegas, killing 58 people in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Pressure could also come from Charlottesville, which is grappling with the aftermath of a white nationalist rally this summer that descended into chaos.
Virginia law doesn't currently allow localities to implement restrictions on firearms during special events, and many attendees at the rally were heavily armed.
Charlottesville plans to push for legislation that would change that, City Manager Maurice Jones said at a city council meeting Monday.
Gun-control bills would likely get a receptive audience with Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, an Army veteran who supports universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. His campaign received nearly $1.4 million from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety.
Exit polling from Nov. 7 shows gun legislation was near the top of Virginia voters' minds. In polling conducted for The Washington Post and other media organizations, voters ranked gun policy second only to health care out of five issues they said matter most in decided how they voted in the governor's race. Among the 17 percent of voters who said gun policy mattered most, 49 percent said they voted for Northam, who has an F rating from the NRA, and 49 for Gillespie, who has an A rating. The poll's overall margin of error was plus or minus four percentage points.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Defense League, said he thinks many gun owners had become complacent but won't be after this election.
"It has woken up gun owners big time," he said.
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