Much of the focus on results from Tuesday’s off-year elections has been on whether they might be proxies for the 2020 prospects of President Donald Trump and many of his fellow Republicans. But in Virginia, the bigger takeaway might involve a potentially seismic shift in gun policy.
Virginia, to remind, has endured several mass shootings, generally defined as a single episode in which at least four people were wounded; that differs from a federal definition of at least four people killed. Unfortunately for Virginia, it has experienced a lot of both.
In May, a former Virginia Beach municipal employee killed a
dozen ex-colleagues and wounded four others. Last year, four members of Congress were shot during a baseball practice in Alexandria (all survived but some suffered grave wounds). Just over a decade ago, a gunman with a history of mental illness bought two semi-automatic firearms and massacred 32 people — mostly students — at Virginia Tech, one of the deadliest mass shootings in the nation’s history.
Those tragedies apparently weighed heavily on voters Tuesday. In a poll released a month ago, about 3 in 4 voters listed gun policy as their top concern. But the issue is as fractious there as in the rest of the country, with Democratic officials supporting much more stringent controls than Republican officials — even though voters across the spectrum support some gun control measures.
The issue came to a head after the Virginia Beach killings when Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam convened a special legislative session to consider gun measures, which drew about 30 bills covering diverse reforms including expanded background checks and bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
But leaders in the Republican-led legislature abruptly adjourned the session after 90 minutes without passing any bills, a move that seems to have galvanized gun control supporters — Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety advocacy group spent $2.5 million on the campaign — and led voters to break the deadlock over the issue in Richmond, the state capital.
Now Virginians can prepare for some action as Democrats won control of the legislature, though how much change is to come remains to be seen.
But whatever happens in Virginia could have far-reaching effects. Because of the state’s relatively lax laws governing firearm sales, Virginia has become a
major source of guns confiscated in states with tighter controls. For example, a 2016 report from the New York state attorney general found that three-quarters of guns confiscated in that state were initially sold legally in other states, many of them in Virginia.
Of course, tightening gun control in one state is a baby step toward reducing access to firearms nationwide.
But considering the issue drove political change in the Virginia legislature itself could be read as a political message to legislators elsewhere: Listen to the voters and public opinion, not the gun lobby.