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Opinion How will gun violence affect the Virginia midterms?

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) on Feb. 10 in Culpeper, Va. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)
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The Virginia suburbs will be among the nation’s major proving grounds as to the power of gun control as a key issue in this year's midterm elections.

This fall, Republicans hope to flip seats that three Democratic women — Reps. Abigail Spanberger in Virginia’s 7th District, Elaine Luria in the 2nd and Jennifer Wexton in the 10th — won in the 2018 midterm election when then-President Donald Trump was deeply unpopular in Virginia.

But can Democrats effectively mobilize their base and turn swing voters to their side on the guns issue in the face of runaway inflation and record fuel prices, long-running supply-chain dysfunctions, unchecked aggression against neighbor nations by authoritarian adversaries abroad, rising violent crime rates at home and a president whose job-approval ratings are now consistently as low as the predecessor he unseated 19 months ago?

Poll after poll after poll in recent years has shown clear majorities back stricter gun laws in the United States, where guns outnumber people by 21 percent. Or, put another way, there are slightly more than six guns for every five Americans. And they’re being put to devastating use in ways incomprehensible to people in other countries.

In just two weeks after an 18-year-old armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle killed 19 pupils and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., an additional 281 people were killed and another 12,085 were wounded in 244 mass shootings in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive. That includes six Virginia mass shootings that killed 10 and injured 21 during that span. Compare that fresh 14-day total to the 272 mass shootings the database logged for all of 2014, the archive’s first year of comprehensively confirming and cataloguing such incidents.

Public awareness of the toll from gun attacks has certainly spiked across the nation because of the heart-rending and infuriating details and images from back-to-back atrocities in Uvalde and, the week before, in Buffalo, where an 18-year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist is accused of taking a combat-style rifle into a supermarket in a mostly Black neighborhood and killing 10 people.

In a poll of 2,005 registered voters for Morning Consult and Politico conducted May 20 to 22, 59 percent said they want tougher gun control laws passed. On Sunday, a bipartisan group of senators reached an agreement in principle on a modest package of gun-safety reforms, but a ban on semiautomatic assault rifles or raising the purchase age for them from 18 to 21 were not among its provisions.

As bitter as the gun rights vs. gun control debate has become, its ability to swing elections on its own is limited. The economy is usually the most potent driver for elections, and that’s certainly true today. In an ABC News/Ipsos Poll conducted June 3 to 4, after the Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings, respondents ranked gun violence as the third most pressing issue, trailing the worst inflation in 40 years and the economy.

Geography, demographics and culture figure significantly into levels of political support for or resistance to gun control legislation, according to research last September by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Pew Research Center. In Democratic-voting urban areas, nearly two-thirds were likely to view gun violence as a “very big problem,” almost double the 35 percent in rural areas who shared their view. In suburbs, 47 percent considered guns a major problem.

It's no mystery that the three Democratic women likely to face the most determined, well-funded GOP challenges this fall represent suburban districts where there is less support for gun rights than in Virginia’s rural Southside, Southwest and Shenandoah Valley regions, but where support for gun restrictions is less than it is in cities such as Alexandria, Richmond, Norfolk and Virginia Beach or the urbanized counties of Arlington and Fairfax. It’s a middle ground that elects candidates ranging from the political center to liberal, but whose educated, generally affluent voters are not monolithic and assess candidates on multiple issues in making their choices.

The Virginia congresswomen — all supporters of tightening gun laws — enjoy a wind at their backs from gun-control voters in the suburbs and exurbs of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Yet they face mighty head winds from a Democratic president with consistently poor ratings for his performance on a variety of issues, especially the economy and inflation.

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