Guns a top issue for some Virginia voters but campaigns mostly quiet

RICHMOND, Va. (Nov. 3, 2023)—Virginia lawmakers elected to office next week will likely take up firearm legislation in the next General Assembly session.

Democrats rate gun policy as the No. 2 top issue, behind abortion, according to a mid-October Christopher Newport University survey of likely voters. Independents rank gun policy as the fourth top issue of concern. Gun policy ranks lowest among Republicans, but comes in above health care and "other."

Several polls have indicated that control of the General Assembly is truly up for grabs, with voters pretty split on who they want in charge. The statewide election is Tuesday.

Gun policy in Virginia mostly hit a stalemate the past two years, with power of the statehouse divided between Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House. Each party proposed legislation in alignment with party views, which was eventually shot down by each respective chamber.

It did seem that lawmakers on both sides would pass a gun storage bill last session, but the bill died suddenly and lawmakers instead passed a gun locker tax credit.

When Democrats briefly had statehouse control and the governor's office during the early pandemic years, they passed several laws that regulated firearms, including background checks, monthly purchase caps, possession in public spaces, and a red-flag law that allows authorities to remove a firearm from a person believed to be at risk.

If Republicans gain a trifecta dominance after the election, the focus will be to reverse gun control laws, according to Philip Van Cleave, the president of gun rights advocacy group Virginia Citizens Defense League that launched in 1994.

The League would like to remove the firearm ban in place in state government buildings, and also remove the power local governments now have to regulate firearms in public spaces. Only 17 localities have passed such a policy, "but that's 17 too many," according to Van Cleave.

The League wants to see Virginia become a "constitutional carry" state, and remove the required permit for concealed carry.

"This makes it so that people have their right, their freedom to protect themselves," Van Cleave said. "Getting closer to where the Founding Fathers wanted it."

The VCDL also hopes that red flag laws will be removed by the next General Assembly.

"What we're looking for is to get our rights restored to where they're supposed to be and get rid of the gun control that's out there," Van Cleave said.

The gun control political action committee Everytown for Gun Safety spent at least $1.5 million in Virginia races in 2019, the last time that all 140 seats were up for election. This year the group has spent approximately half a million dollars to help Democratic campaigns.

The National Rifle Association helps fund Republican candidates, but through smaller amounts. It gave almost $160,000 this year, compared to $350,000 in 2019.

Democratic bases are very much motivated by gun safety issues and Republicans are somewhat motivated by gun rights, according to Alex Keena, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

But the talking points are not really coming up on the campaign trail, other than mention of both stances on some candidate websites. National polling shows strong voter support for red flag laws and background checks, Keena said.

"Probably the Republicans realized this and they want to please their base without angering the invisible majority," Keena said.

There have been over 500 mass shootings in America this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent data collection and research group. The worst mass shooting in Maine's history recently dominated headlines, with 18 people killed and 13 injured.

A mass shooting is defined by the FBI as a shooting in which four people are murdered by a gun.

The frequency of mass shootings is "really painful for a lot of people to talk about," Keena said. "Republicans kind of want to stay away from that, but the Democrats, like you would think they'd have an opportunity to hammer that and hammer some of these people with a record on guns, but they're not really talking about either."

It could be because Democrats don't want to promise something they might not be able to deliver even if they win the General Assembly, because of a stalemate with a Republican governor, Keena said.

Del. Rodney Willett, D-Henrico, is running for reelection in House District 58. Willett would support an assault weapon ban like the one proposed earlier this year, and said it would save valuable lives in Virginia.

"I'm speaking as a gun owner, and I'm speaking to other gun owners," Willett said. "There are plenty of weapons available, we don't need assault weapons."

The leading cause of death in children for three years has been from firearms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I've had to look right in the eye at parents who have lost kids to firearms, kids who should not have died," Willett said. "They died because another child got hold of a weapon, shouldn't have had it, used it to shoot another child and that should never happen."

There have been 397 firearm injuries that resulted in a visit to the emergency room this year in youth ages 0-19, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The overall number of injuries this year is 1,896.

Gun-related deaths last year totaled 1,325, the highest number since at least 2007, according to VDH. Those deaths include accidental shootings, suicide, and homicide.

Virginia was right at the national average for gun deaths in 2021, which was 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people.

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