Gun debate raises stakes in battle for Virginia legislature

A high-stakes state election in Virginia this year is set to get even more heated as both sides of the gun control debate pour money and resources to reshape an almost evenly split legislature in the wake of recent mass shootings across the country.

At the center of the upcoming battle is a set of comprehensive gun control bills, including universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons, that failed to pass the legislature last month after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called for a special session following a Virginia Beach shooting that killed 12 people in May.

Democrats blame Republican leadership for abruptly ending the session, saying the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun rights groups swayed GOP legislators. But Republicans say they wanted more time to examine the policy proposals and accuse Democrats of using the Virginia Beach shooting as a political prop ahead of the election. 

{mosads}The proposed gun control reform is set to be considered in mid-November, just days after a Nov. 5 election that will determine who controls Virginia’s legislature next year. 

Virginia has become increasingly blue, having voted twice for President Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. Both of its senators as well as its governor are Democrats.

But Republicans currently hold a 51-48 advantage over Democrats in the House of Delegates and a 20-19 majority in the state Senate. There is one vacancy in each chamber. 

That has made legislative races a key battle for activists in both sides of the gun debate, especially on the heels of shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that have again shined attention to the issue.

Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy organization founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, pledged to invest at least $2.5 million in Virginia before election day, spokeswoman Molly Corbett told The Hill.

And NextGen America, a Democratic political action committee founded by billionaire and 2020 presidential contender Tom Steyer, launched a six-figure digital ad campaign Thursday focussed on the Virginia state elections.

Giffords Courage to Fight Gun Violence political director Joanna Belanger said the group is also paying close attention to the Virginia races and is considering ramping up fundraising as well as bringing former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), who survived an assassination attempt in 2011.

“Things have come a long way in Virginia but I think after what we saw in July in the special session there’s a lot more work that needs to be done,” Belanger said. “And we all know it’s the backyard of the [National Rifle Association], and the NRA certainly has a stronghold on some of those districts, but we’re working hard with all the tools we have.”

But gun rights groups are equally motivated. The NRA said it will “fight with everything” it has to protect gun rights in its home state. 

“Our message to politicians is simple: Instead of seeking to slam the door on the Constitution, we need to slam the door on violent criminals,” NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen added in a statement. “We need solutions that keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals while also ensuring that Virginia’s honest, hard-working citizens have the ability to defend themselves.”

Gun control remains a divisive topic in Virginia, just like it is nationally. Rural areas remain largely conservative and strongholds for gun right advocates.

But the state’s diversifying suburbs have helped boost Democrats, electing moderates like freshman Rep. Jennifer Wexton who beat two-term Republican Barbara Comstock in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C, last year.

Gun control activists believe the battle for the legislature will be waged in these suburbs.

Everytown launched a digital ad campaign this week totaling $135,000 that is focused on suburbs, according to The Washington Post. The ads attack Republicans for not doing enough “to prevent gun deaths.” 

It is a message being adopted by Democratic candidates taking on incumbent Republicans.

Giffords-endorsed candidate Sheila Bynum-Coleman is making gun law reform a key part of her platform as she takes on veteran state House Speaker Kirk Cox in a district that encompasses the southern suburb of Richmond.

Voters are already bringing it up as an issue they care about, she said in an interview with The Hill. 

“I don’t care who I’m talking to, no matter who I’m talking to they’re saying, ‘Can you keep our streets safe?’ They’re concerned about the gun violence, even going to the grocery store people are concerned about their safety,” Bynum-Coleman said. 

Bynum-Coleman knows that fear all too well. Three years ago she got a call no mother wants to receive — her daughter had been shot. A bullet went through her shoulder and grazed her chin, but Bynum-Coleman’s daughter survived. 

“I’ve knocked on so many doors and I talk to people who are very Republican and I also speak to Democrats. I talk to everybody who I can reach, and no matter who I’m talking to, the majority of people say we want universal background checks,” she said. “Not to take away our guns, but let’s make sure the people who have them should have them.”

Bynum-Coleman blamed her opponent for bringing the debate on the gun bills, which included imposing a one handgun a month limit and a requirement to report lost or stolen firearms, to a halt last month. 

She also accused Cox of only speaking with the NRA and other gun rights groups before calling off the session hours after it began. 

Cox’s office did not respond to requests for comment. 

Republicans, however, plan to fight back, while accusing Democrats of politicizing the gun debate.

State Sen. Mark Obenshain, the chairman of a Republican-appointed crime commission tasked with evaluating potential measures in the aftermath of the Virginia Beach shooting, said Democrats were looking to distract from controversies surrounding Northam as well as Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.

Northam came under intense scrutiny earlier this year after his student page in his medical school yearbook included an image of a man in blackface accompanied by a man in Ku Klux Klan garb. Northam at first acknowledged being in the picture but later denied he was either of the two men.

Meanwhile, Fairfax has faced accusations of sexual assault, but has strongly denied the allegations. 

“I think we owe the victims and their families of Virginia Beach more than to use them as props. I think we have an opportunity to look for bipartisan approaches that will make a difference, not approaches that are going to be brochure bills in political elections coming up or to divert attention to the scandals that have been dogging the governor and the executive branch during the year,” Obenshain told The Hill.

“I don’t want to politicize this I want to adopt real solutions that are going to make Virginia a safer place,” he said. 

Tags Barbara Comstock Hillary Clinton Jennifer Wexton Michael Bloomberg Tom Steyer
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