Virginians should not forget what happened at the state’s special legislative session on gun safety this summer, when Republicans who control both houses forced an adjournment after just 90 minutes and sent everyone home — and the GOP House speaker allowed the National Rifle Association to set up its command post in his conference room. The party’s leaders made sure there was no debate there on even one of the dozens of bills submitted beforehand.
Could there be any more obvious sign that the NRA and gun-toting acolytes from other such groups are indistinguishable satellites of Virginia’s Republican Party-and vice versa?
By now it is beyond clear that a GOP-controlled General Assembly in Richmond will never enact meaningful measures to reduce gun violence — even after one gunman mowed down 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, and another killed a dozen people at a Virginia Beach municipal building this spring, and after more than 1,000 other Virginians die annually in gun violence.
And whatever the Republicans’ latest pretext for inaction — the special session was “premature,” declared House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, weeks after the Virginia Beach massacre — it is plainly true that the only way to restrict gun use, curtail the lethality of firearms or add muscle to penalties for gun-law violations is to elect Democrats who, if they capture a handful of seats, would gain control of both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in more than 20 years.
Elections for all 140 members of the Virginia legislature are Nov. 5, and while the state has trended Democratic for years — including huge gains by the party in elections for the House of Delegates two years ago — off-year elections like this year’s, with neither a presidential nor a gubernatorial contest on the ballot, typically attract a low turnout.
They shouldn’t. Republicans such as Cox, who wields enormous power in the House of Delegates, and Timothy Hugo, who represents parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties and is the House GOP caucus chairman, have systematically opposed measures that would impede the sort of reasonable gun reform that has broad support among Virginians.
Those measures include closing a loophole in state law that allows purchasers to elude background checks simply by buying a handgun at gun shows. Republicans argue that most guns in the state are sold by licensed dealers, who are required to submit buyers’ names for background checks. That’s exactly the point: criminals may easily know to approach private dealers at gun shows, who are exempt from the background check requirement.
Similarly, it was Republicans in the General Assembly who in 2012 pushed to repeal a state law, on Virginia’s books for nearly 20 years, that limited handgun purchases to one per month. Allowing unlimited handgun purchases is a boon to criminal gangs such as MS-13; most law-abiding citizens would have no need to buy more than a dozen such weapons in a year.
Republicans have adopted wholesale the NRA’s orthodoxy on gun reform, which is to oppose even the most incremental proposals on the ground that they may erode Second Amendment absolutism. For instance, in the 13th District state Senate race, west of Washington, the Republican candidate, Geary Higgins, a member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors running for the state Senate, rejected tweaks to local law after eight incidents over the past 18 months in whichbullets struck houses and strayed into other properties, including one case involving a woman who was reportedly grazed by a bullet. He attacked other supervisors, including fellow Republicans, who favored the mere study of new gun regulations.
Higgins is opposed in that race by Del. John Bell, a Democrat who has pushed safety measures, such as requiring in-person (as opposed to online) training for Virginians seeking permits to carry concealed handguns. Bell is no radical — he dismisses any confiscation of firearms. But he would provide a vote in favor of gun sanity, unlike Higgins.
Virginia’s apotheosis of Republican extremism on guns is first-term state Sen. Amanda F. Chase, who delights in wearing a pistol on her hip on the floor of the Virginia Senate and vowed in a digital advertisement to “shoot down” gun-control groups. (She blamed her advertising firm for the language; the firm said she approved it.) Chase, who represents the mostly suburban 11th Senate district south of Richmond, responded to the August massacre in El Paso, Texas, by making a video insisting on the abolition of “gun-free zones” — in other words, calling for more guns, not fewer.
The Republican Party in Chesterfield County, in her district, ejected her — not because of her armed antics but because she had the temerity to oppose a fellow Republican candidate for sheriff. (His offense was to withdraw his support of her after she mouthed off to a state Capitol Police officer at the General Assembly in a dispute over a parking spot.)
The GOP default on guns is to deflect and distract. Having squashed the special session of the General Assembly in July, Republicans shunted legislative proposals to the bipartisan state crime commission, whose members include Republicans who have voted to allow concealed firearms in bars and classrooms, and resolved to reconvene the legislature on Nov. 18 — after the elections. In that way they signaled their intent to avoid reminding voters of their insistent inertia on the issue.
Though loath to grapple with gun violence head-on, a few Republicans have floated proposals in response to recent mass shootings. Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the House majority leader, has offered measures that would promote a police crackdown on gangs and incentivize gang members to renounce violence and clean up their lives. Those seem like sensible responses to a different problem.
Polls have consistently showed that Virginians favor more gun control, including overwhelming support for expanded background checks for purchases. Their views are not reflected in the state legislature, whose districts have been heavily gerrymandered by Republicans who have controlled Richmond for too long. It’s time that changed.