Virginia Dems Make Run at Guns; Is GOP Ready to Block or Fold?

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam shakes hands as he leaves the chambers after delivering his State of the Commonwealth address during a joint session of the Virginia Legislature in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Republican Kirk Cox, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, tweeted his party’s response to the news that Democrats would make another run at gun-control legislation.

“The @vahousegop will steadfastly fight to defend the Second Amendment rights of law abiding citizens from far-left gun control proposals this session,” Cox wrote.

The NRA isn’t going to sit back and watch gun control win approval in Virginia, either.

“Virginians want elected officials to address the root causes of violent crime and find solutions that will save lives instead of pursuing gun-control policies that criminals will not follow and will make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to defend themselves,” Catherine Mortensen, spokeswoman for the NRA’s Institute of Legislative Action, said in a statement.

“This latest gun-control agenda is being pushed by politicians who would rather score political points than tackle the tough issues related to violent crime,” Mortensen added.

But the GOP holds only two-vote majorities in the Virginia House of Delegates and the state Senate this year. That sliver of light gives new hope to Gov. Ralph Northam and his fellow Democrats that they will finally be able to pass gun-control legislation that Republicans have defeated in sessions past.

Northam said Virginia recorded 1,028 deaths from firearms last year, more than half of them suicides. By comparison, 956 people were killed in Virginia traffic accidents.

“We lose too many Virginians each year to senseless gun violence, and it is time we take meaningful steps to protect the health and safety of our citizens,” said Northam. “I hope people come with a different attitude this year.”

House of Delegates Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn said to the Washington Post some Republicans have told her they might be able to move toward gun control this year.

Del. Chris Hurst (D) said this year the pressure is on Republicans, not Democrats.

“They’re going to need to decide what it is chiefly that they want to accomplish,” Hurst said of Republicans. “Do they want to accomplish a partisan agenda, or do they actually want to protect the safety and well-being of Virginians here in the commonwealth?”

Shaun Kenney, a former executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, told the Courthouse News Service there is no chance of GOP movement on the gun issue. He said Republicans are not going to sell out moderate voters.

“This does very little to reassure voters in the exurbs that a Democratic majority is not intent on selling out to its radical fringe, whether it is on gun control or a $15 minimum wage,” he said in an email. “Northam has a golden opportunity to govern from the center, but the question remains whether his base will permit it.”

The Democrats’ 2019 gun-control agenda includes a proposal to allow police officers to take guns away from people who a judge decides are a danger to themselves. Another bill permits confiscation of firearms from people who are the subjects of personal protection orders.

“We need to do a better job of getting guns out of the hands of men that abuse women,” said Hurst. He also called the Democrats’ package a collection of “modest and common-sense proposals that will save lives in the Commonwealth every year.”

But GOP Del. Chris Head said he had “a real hard time, first and foremost, with depriving anyone of their right of due process.”

A third proposal would ban so-called assault weapons. The legislation defines those weapons as any gun with the capacity to carry more than ten bullets. Northam called those guns “weapons of war.”

Northam also said after serving as an Army doctor for eight years, treating soldiers wounded in the Gulf War, he knows “all too well what weapons of war do to human beings.”

But Head was outraged by the assault weapons legislation. He called it “just idiotic” and said the proposal “demonstrates that you don’t know what you’re talking about with weapons.”

Another Democratic proposal would institute universal background checks on all gun sales, even online sales. Head doesn’t like that either. “How in the world are you going to enforce a background check if somebody wants to buy a gun from their neighbor?” Head said.

And yet another plank of the Democrats’ gun-control package reinstates the “One Handgun a Month” law. No one who isn’t a licensed gun dealer would be able to buy more than one handgun every 30 days.

The pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, which gave “two thumbs-down” to the entire gun-control agenda, said, “There was no evidence to show that the old law did anything to reduce crime or gun trafficking. Improvements in the background check system have also made this bill unnecessary.”

Republicans have also submitted a gun legislation package. The Virginia Citizens Defense League has endorsed, with “two thumbs up,” the GOP proposals, all of which would loosen gun restrictions in the commonwealth.

Steven Farnsworth, director of the University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies, thinks Del. Filler-Corn might be overly optimistic about Democrats’ chances of winning some GOP gun-control votes.

But he also said that could hurt the GOP in the next election.

“Polls show that robust background checks and limits on access to weapons by people who are dangerous are popular with Virginians,” Farnsworth told the Courthouse News Service. “If the bills are blocked, expect Democrats to focus on these issues during the fall campaigns.”