Chelsea Parsons is vice president for guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and is a resident of Northern Virginia.
One hallmark of Terry McAuliffe’s (D) tenure as governor of Virginia has been his willingness to go toe to toe with the Republican-controlled state legislature on a number of divisive social justice issues, such as LGBT rights, immigration enforcement and funding for abortion services. During his four years as governor, McAuliffe has issued a historic number of vetoes — 120 in total — to prevent the enactment of a wide variety of potentially damaging laws.
Bills related to firearms have been one of his frequent veto targets. Sixteen percent of those bills were related to gun policy, including bills that would have lowered the minimum age of eligibility for a concealed-carry permit, weakened the law regarding safe storage of guns by foster parents and eliminated the ability for state agencies to prevent employees from storing guns in their cars. McAuliffe also vetoed bills that would have put victims of domestic violence at risk by promoting a dangerous false narrative that gun possession by victims is a pathway to ensuring safety — an assertion that has been rejected by experts and victims’ advocates. One of the bills he vetoed this year seems particularly relevant now: a bill that would have prevented government agencies operating emergency shelters, like those protecting victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, from banning guns in these shelters.
Gun safety has long been a political hot-button issue in Virginia. The commonwealth has been the site of horrific high-profile shootings — the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech , the on-air murder of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward in 2015, and the 2016 murder of Prince William County police officer Ashley Guindon responding to a domestic-violence call on her first day of duty. Virginia is also the home base of the National Rifle Association, and the gun lobby has historically held much sway in the state legislature.
But gun violence is much more than a political issue; it is a public-health crisis. Every 10 hours, a person is killed with a gun in Virginia in cases that involve suicide, domestic violence, accidental shootings or interpersonal disputes. Gun violence does not affect every Virginia community in the same way. The gun death rates in Richmond and Roanoke are more than 50 percent higher than the statewide average, while the rates in Alexandria and Virginia Beach are 71 percent and 31 percent lower, respectively. Communities of color bear a particularly heavy burden of this violence: While African Americans make up nearly 20 percent of the population, they account for approximately 66 percent of gun homicide victims in Virginia.
In addition to these devastating deaths due to gun violence, a substantial number of Virginians survive gunshot wounds every year and face years of physical, mental and emotional recovery from their injuries. According to the Virginia Department of Health, from 2005 to 2014, 5,532 people were nonfatally shot and treated in Virginia hospitals, at a total cost of more than $336 million.
Despite this continuing trauma, the gun lobby has persisted in advancing a dangerous agenda that would result in weakening our already loose gun laws. The NRA’s 2017 Virginia candidate questionnaire makes it clear that it is not planning to back down on working to enact its extreme agenda in Virginia and includes questions about many of its top legislative priorities, including eliminating the permit requirement for concealed carry and allowing guns to be carried in K-12 schools, and enacting an expansive “stand your ground” law.
The NRA’s extreme agenda has never been more clear, and the recent series of videos by NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch provided a dark glimpse into the heart of that organization and revealed the NRA for what it has become — an extreme political organization focused on enacting a dangerous agenda that will endanger American communities, all for the sake of generating profits for the gun industry. And it has clearly made its choice for the gubernatorial candidate most likely to pursue this agenda, endorsing Republican Ed Gillespie and awarding him an “A” grade for his positions on gun issues, while giving Democrat Ralph Northam an “F,” which comes as no surprise considering Northam’s long-standing support for common-sense gun laws.
All eyes are on Virginia this fall as one of only two states that hold gubernatorial elections in the year following a presidential election. Virginia is often viewed as a bellwether, and this dynamic is further heightened as the election results will be dissected as an early barometer of how voters are responding to the Trump administration and the potential impact on the 2018 midterm elections.
But far more important than the tea leaves this election may provide for national pundits to read is the effect that it will have on residents of the commonwealth. Much is at stake in this election, not the least of which is continuing to ensure that there is a strong leader in the governor’s office who is willing to stand up and be a backstop against the NRA’s efforts to use Virginia as a testing ground for its extreme agenda.
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