How did my quiet Commonwealth of Virginia, the land where sessions of the General Assembly are sedate and thoughtful, and where almost nothing happens, turn into, as one reporter dubbed it, “ground zero” for the battle over gun legislation? The answer is surprisingly straight forward. The Democrats ran and won in an election in which guns were a “wedge issue.” It was the dominant issue in the 2019 election for the House of Delegates and the State Senate. Republicans seemed intransigent on the issue, totally in the hands of the gun lobby, while Democrats used the phrase “responsible gun legislation.” That went over well with voters sick and tired of gun violence and mass shootings.
However, when it came time for members to file bills, things started to get out of hand. To many, the term “responsible gun legislation” meant red flag laws and enhanced background checks. Even to hard core Second Amendment supporters, as the opinion polls bore out, these moves seemed reasonable. The red flag laws would give courts the ability to take guns away from individuals considered a danger to themselves or to others. Enhanced background checks mean you can’t sell or transfer guns to former mental patients and felons.
So far so good. If only the Democrats had kept their proposed gun legislation within those boundaries. But, they didn’t. They seemed to forget that they live in a state with a strong gun-owning tradition and one where rules governing firearms, rules of any kind, are viewed with a jaundiced eye. That’s why several proposals, well beyond these “common sense” pitches, seemed so out of sync with the approach Democrats had seemingly promised during the election.
A number of Democrats in the General Assembly had a much more ambitious legislative agenda in mind. In addition to red flag laws and enhanced background checks they wanted to bring back “one gun a month.” This was a law that limited gun buyers to one purchase a month. It was enacted back in the 1990’s and then rescinded a decade or so later. Sounds inconsequential enough, but to gun enthusiasts and to those advocating the slippery slope theory of ever encroaching gun legislation, this was the first step to limiting gun ownership. One gun a month, still in the House proposal, was more than enough to set these folks off. Just what the Democrats didn’t want.
The more reasonable amongst the Democratic majority just wanted to pass some rules about keeping weapons away from mental patients and felons and to ramp up background checks. They wanted to step gingerly and avoid getting the ranks of hardcore Second Amendment activists too riled up. However, thanks most to the Delegates and Senators representing the more urban districts of Virginia, and yes, it’s primarily a rural versus urban split, they incited a response many in the party’s leadership wanted to avoid.
And we’re not done. The original Senate gun legislation also called for a ban on the purchase and sale of semiautomatic weapons and a restriction on the size of the weapon’s magazine. Sometimes these weapons are referred to as assault rifles. Thing is, while it’s not too clear why the average gun owner needs a military style semi automatic with a 60-round magazine, it’s the kind of restriction that would have been wise to offer in a more considered manner and not all at once. There are tens of thousands of these weapons of all sorts and variants in Virginia and the Democrats should have known that a ban on their sale and purchase wasn’t likely to go down easily.
While the Democrats deftly managed their campaign in 2019, during their first session in the majority, they’ve been a bit tone deaf when it comes to the rural and gun owning population of Virginia. They are not an inconsiderable force. Also, many moderates, who might support background checks and red flag laws, nonetheless remain uncomfortable with too many restrictions on gun ownership. It can be argued that the Democrats did a great job arguing for the moderate, common sense bills, but didn’t do so well at making the case for more stringent legislation. Indeed, it seemed to take some who voted for Democratic candidates by surprise.
The good news for those advocating a more moderate course is that one-gun-a-month and the purchase and sale ban on semi-automatics aren’t likely to make it into law. Moderate Democrats in the Senate removed the semi-automatic weapons ban from the bill and aren’t likely to support the House’s gun purchase limit. Also, the governor, with his home in the rural Eastern Shore, can be counted on as a moderating force. Unfortunately, having proposed this more stringent anti-gun legislation, many voters the Democrats would like to have in their corner, such as rural voters and moderates, and yes, even some gun owners, find themselves upset with the way gun legislation has been handled in the Virginia General Assembly. The more extreme proposals make them nervous. In the long term, this may come with an electoral price.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.