Gun Control Laws Emerge As Top Issue Ahead Of Virginia Elections

Dave Chavez holds a rifle he built himself and brought to the Izaak Walton League, where he shoots skeet with friends. He opposes stricter gun control.    WAMU / Daniella Cheslow

Dave Chavez holds a rifle he built himself and brought to the Izaak Walton League, where he shoots skeet with friends. He opposes stricter gun control.

WAMU / Daniella Cheslow

At the skeet shooting range at the Izaak Walton League, a group of men who call themselves The Geezers meets for a regular Friday morning session.

They fire shotguns at orange clay pigeons that fly high against a background of trees and grass at the 100-acre recreational club in Centreville. Dave Chavez, 64, drove here from Front Royal, and he brought several firearms from his home collection, including a rifle he built himself and a shotgun he uses on the range.

“This is a Japanese company called SKB that has gone out of business; I have multiple barrels for this,” he said.

Virginia gun culture has flourished in part because of the Commonwealth’s lenient gun laws. The state does not require a permit to buy a gun or openly carry it, and there are no restrictions on high capacity magazines. Private gun sales are not subject to mandatory background checks. And Chavez, a member of the National Rifle Association, wants to keep laws as they are.

“Guns are just a tool, and if used properly they don’t commit crimes,” he said. “People commit crimes.”

That view used to be dogma in Richmond, where Republicans have controlled the House of Delegates for two decades and the State Senate for five years. And in the past, they weren’t the only ones supporting gun rights; some Virginia Democrats regularly got A ratings from the NRA.

But that’s changing as Virginia shifts blue, particularly in the growing northern suburbs. Gun policy has emerged as a major issue for members of both parties, and three out of four voters say it is their top concern, according to a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll.

With the GOP down to a narrow majority in the General Assembly, Democrats aim to flip one or both chambers in November’s election, and many see gun control as a winning issue.

Virginia is one of only a handful of states holding off-off year elections, and the only one where the outcome could switch the party in power in a state legislature. For Democrats and Republicans crafting strategy at the national level, gun policy’s prominent role in this vote could be a bellwether ahead of next year’s presidential race.

On a recent evening in the basement of a church in Arlington, volunteers trained to canvass for gun-control candidates, including Democratic Del. Kathy Tran of the 42nd District.

They are activists with Moms Demand Action. The gun control group is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, which has committed a record $2.5 million to advancing gun control in Virginia’s elections — more than 10 times what the NRA contributed this cycle.

Volunteer Veronica Bartlett, 54, is a new recruit from Arlington. She’s part of a boom in membership; Moms Demand Action has 23 groups in Virginia, five of which formed just in the past year.

Katy Bloomberg, left, Maureen McGee, center, and Veronica Bartlett, right, train to canvass voters with the group Moms Demand Action in Arlington.Daniella     Cheslow / WAMU

Katy Bloomberg, left, Maureen McGee, center, and Veronica Bartlett, right, train to canvass voters with the group Moms Demand Action in Arlington.Daniella

Cheslow / WAMU

“Mass shooting after mass shooting would enrage me, and the current political climate enrages me,” Bartlett said. “And I thought, ‘Ok, you have to choose an issue and do something.’”

One of those mass shootings was in Virginia Beach in May, when a gunman killed 12 people. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam called a special session to discuss gun laws, but Republicans shut it down after just 90 minutes.

Democrats hope to capitalize on the issue in November’s election. The volunteers with Moms Demand Action study talking points to emphasize red flag laws and universal background checks, both popular in polls. The group’s leader Beth Fine said that’s just a start.

“We are for an assault weapons ban,” she said. “We also want to figure out how we can do that in a way that is most effective.”

This bold stance on guns is new for Virginia Democrats and their supporters, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

“Democrats have been rather cautious I think in the past, with some exception,” he said. He sees the party becoming more assertive on gun control.

In this climate, some Republicans are recalibrating, especially those fighting to keep their seats in areas that are increasingly leaning Democratic. Del. Tim Hugo of the 40th District is the sole Fairfax County Republican in the House of Delegates – and he’s backing a red flag law even though he opposed it in the past.

Randy Minchew is trying to recover the 20th District seat he lost to Democratic Del. Wendy Gooditis in Leesburg. Minchew is now calling for stronger gun laws, despite being a lifetime NRA Member.

Some Republicans in northern Virginia are noticing the shift.

Gabriella Hoffman fundraises for the National Rifle Association, which she joined in 2015. She has a concealed carry permit, and sometimes brings a firearm when she goes out at night.Daniella     Cheslow / WAMU

Gabriella Hoffman fundraises for the National Rifle Association, which she joined in 2015. She has a concealed carry permit, and sometimes brings a firearm when she goes out at night.Daniella

Cheslow / WAMU

Gabriella Hoffman is a media consultant, a rare conservative in liberal Alexandria. She fundraises for the NRA and she has a permit to carry a concealed firearm – which she does sometimes at night.

“You would rather have something and not need it than need something and not have it,” she said.

Still, Hoffman concedes, the Democrats are getting their message across. She wonders why she’s not seeing the same on the Republican side, including more campaign ads supporting gun rights.

“It pains me to say this but I don’t really see much … gun stuff, even conservative issues, advertised much,” she said. “And I wish that they would.”