Buzz about Everytown for Gun Safety dropping big money into two state Senate races in Virginia and the riveting, emotional TV ads for which it paid generated more enthusiasm for reasonable gun-safety reforms than 32 students and faculty shot dead at Virginia Tech in 2007.
I do not say this lightly. My son was at Virginia Tech that day. He, fortunately, was not shot, but he has emotional scars.
Virginia is the site of the largest massacre in the United States by a lone gunman, but little has been done to prevent another tragedy. Virginia’s legislators refused to enact common-sense gun restrictions in the wake of the massacre. The governor at the time, Tim Kaine (D), corrected flaws in Virginia’s background-check system that allowed the shooter to legally buy a gun. (He should have been barred because he’d been adjudicated mentally ill and dangerous.) Kaine also improved campus safety and tried to improve access to mental-health treatment. But little else was done.
This month, the National Rifle Association and other gun groups proclaimed that Everytown’s big-moneyed hand in the Virginia elections backfired because a key Senate race it helped fund was still won by the NRA-funded candidate. That win, in the heart of the Republican-dominated center of the state, meant control of the state Senate remained safely in GOP hands.
Pro-gun groups here decried Everytown’s $700,000 ad buy in the Richmond area. How ironic that conservatives who claim “money equals free speech” and who defend the right of outside groups to give unlimited campaign donations, as enshrined in Citizens United, were outraged at Everytown’s largesse. Of course, conservatives didn’t hand back large donations from the NRA and tea party groups.
All the protests detracted from what the pro-gun groups don’t want known: how close they came to losing. In a state that saw overall voter turnout at a dismal 29 percent, the Senate race in central Virginia, where Everytown’s ads generated awareness of gun violence, saw turnout surge by almost 70 percent. The seat had been held by the GOP for 29 years, but the Democratic candidate Everytown backed lost by only about 1,500 votes out of 54,000 cast for the two main candidates.
Gun-rights advocates also played down the resounding win of the Democratic candidate in Northern Virginia, who also ran on a vigorous gun-safety platform, and on whom Everytown spent $1.5 million in TV ads.
The money dropped in the last two weeks of both campaigns helped Virginians hear repeatedly from a father grieving about the loss of his vibrant, beautiful daughter, a reporter shot to death on live TV in our state in August.
Pro-gun groups howled that new laws would not have prevented that young reporter’s death. That isn’t true. A California law allows families and colleagues of people experiencing mental-health crises to ask a judge to ensure menacing, troubled people do not have access to weapons. Also, Virginia could close loopholes that allow for many ways to buy a gun without a background check.
Reinstating Virginia’s one-handgun-purchase-per-month law would slow gunrunning by making it harder for straw purchasers to buy weapons for resale.
Yes, Virginia has been beset by a number of high-profile mass shootings. But eight years after that blood-stained massacre at Virginia Tech, I could finally feel the electricity, the excitement of moms and dads, grandparents, neighbors and young people clamoring for leaders who will take on the epidemic of gun violence in our commonwealth.
No, in the most conservative, red center of our state, we didn’t get the big victory, but gun-safety advocates came close enough to know we will soon prevail.
In the NRA’s home state of Virginia, Everytown woke people up and helped them realize there is something each of us can do about gun violence: vote. Vote for new leaders who want to slow the senseless, heartbreaking shootings that traumatize our families.