How Virginia Became the Front Line in the Fight Over Guns

February 1, 2020

Virginia became the center of the gun-control debate years before tens of thousands of gun-rights supporters amassed on the steps of the state capitol earlier this month.

Gun-control activists targeted Virginia as a potential foothold in the American South as far back as 2013. The once-reliably conservative state has seen its population center shift to the Northern Virginia suburbs and university towns—developments that led to Mark Warner's gubernatorial victory in 2002 and Barack Obama's wins in the state in 2008 and 2012.

During that time, however, Republican control of the state legislature blocked gun regulations and Virginia's state-level deliberative bodies became a focus of left-leaning gun-control groups. Starting in 2013 and ramping up two years later, Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety, with substantial funding from 2020 presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, flooded the state with millions of dollars.

Democratic groups poured a record $13 million into the state's elections last year. Bloomberg-backed groups outspent the National Rifle Association by an 8-1 margin, helping Democrats capture narrow majorities in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate.

The controversies that have erupted across the state since then come as the members of the newly ascendant Democratic majority find themselves caught between the campaign donors who helped them secure control in Richmond and local residents angered by the gun-control proposals offered by those groups and the Democrats they backed. Those proposals include an outright ban on AR-15s, which elicited an intense backlash

The outcome of the struggle will have an impact beyond the immediate struggles in the state that will determine the shape of a universal background check or "red flag" law in Virginia. It may well shape the gun debate nationwide for years to come.

For Democrats, their fundraising advantage has not translated to grassroots mobilization. Gun-rights voters have turned out by the thousands across the state while no such movement has materialized among gun-control activists. While Moms Demand Action drew 200 people to its lobby day on Jan. 8, the NRA saw 10 times that number show up four days later. A pro-gun rally organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League on Jan. 20 had well over 20,000 attendees—the largest such demonstration in decades.

"[The proposals] all bother me, but the one that's the most heinous is the red flag law because it violates multiple constitutional amendments," Reco Ford, a business owner who traveled several hours to Richmond, told the Washington Free Beacon. "'Shall not be infringed' is pretty clear. It's written in the United States Constitution as well as the Virginia Constitution."

Following the lead of their Democratic counterparts, gun-rights activists have also turned their attention to the local level. Using legislation modeled on the sanctuary city movement started by immigration activists, supporters of the Second Amendment—with little assistance or funding from organized gun-rights groups—began pushing for their own sanctuaries. While Second Amendment sanctuaries have sporadically appeared in other reliably Democratic states, such as Illinois, New Mexico, and Colorado, the gun sanctuaries have exploded in Virginia.

Within three months of the Democrats' victory, 91 of Virginia's 95 counties have passed or adopted sanctuary resolutions. Similar bills have also passed in more than 40 localities, including Virginia Beach, the largest city in the state and the site of a 2019 mass shooting. Even before the Jan. 20 demonstration made national news, Virginia residents were turning out to support local ordinances.

"I'm a peaceable man and I'm not trying to make any trouble at all now, nor do I intend to, I simply would like to have my rights under the Second Amendment preserved," Laird Taylor, an aerospace engineer living in Fauquier County, told the Free Beacon on Dec. 13. "I see them about to be infringed and I'm offended by that."

Crystal Kiffer, a dentist and lifelong Fauquier County resident, attended the same meeting to support establishing a sanctuary.

"I have guns that they're talking about banning," Kiffer said. "It's going to be a tough, tough day if I don't get to hold onto my guns. I'm not going to let them go."

The county adopted the resolution on Dec. 23. The legislation has also spread to Democratic strongholds. Fairfax County, a Washington, D.C., suburb, is one of four counties that has held out from adopting a gun sanctuary ordinance, but local residents continue to pressure lawmakers. Veronica Slootsky, a health care worker and firearms trainer, attended a Dec. 5 county board of supervisors debate on the issue.

"I've been reading some of the proposed legislation and I'm very, very concerned about what they're trying to pass," she said. "I think it's unconstitutional and endangers folks in Virginia."

The sanctuaries have raised thorny questions of local and state authority when interpreting the Constitution and enforcing gun laws, but the declarations formalize what has long occurred across the United States. In Colorado, for example, a 2013 ban on the sale of magazines holding more than 15 rounds is openly flouted. And nearly 1 million New Yorkers have refused to register their "assault weapons" since the SAFE Act went into effect back in 2013. In New Jersey, meanwhile, a 2018 ban on the possession of magazines holding more than 10 rounds resulted in exactly zero of the devices being turned in.

Gun-control activists are now accusing Republicans and local lawmakers of attempting to overturn the 2019 election.

"We showed up in November when we outspent the NRA 8 to 1 and out-worked them on the ground, flipping both chambers of the General Assembly," Shannon Watts, head of Bloomberg-backed Moms Demand Action, tweeted in January.

The grassroots outcry appears to have tempered the scope of the gun-control proposals. Democrats began 2019 with proposals for an outright ban on the possession of AR-15s and similar firearms, but the confiscation proposal was scrapped for a ban on new sales and a registration scheme which would also confiscate certain ammunition magazines, silencers, and "trigger activators." But that legislation faces long odds to pass as well.

Under the state Senate proposals, Virginia would end up with a universal background check bill—but one that only applies to sales and not other transfers. The state would have a red flag bill—but one that only police can use and which punishes false accusers. Localities would have the power to create new gun-free zones—but only in government facilities or at permitted events, like farmers' markets. Gun owners would be limited to one gun purchase per month—but with an exception for those with gun-carry permits.

Gun-rights advocates are hardly satisfied with the concessions they've secured thus far.

"While there were some improvements to some of these bills, overall, it's still bad legislation," D.J. Spiker, Virginia state director for the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, told the Free Beacon. "Putting in more regulations and making it more onerous on the law-abiding citizens of Virginia is not something we stand for."

They say the mass assembly at the state capitol on Jan. 20 was meant to remind newly-empowered Democrats that their campaign donors are not the sum of their constituency.

"We want to send a signal to the General Assembly to walk away from all this gun control," Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), told the Free Beacon. "Walk away from that. And go do other things."

The backlash to gun-control has clearly awakened many voters. The question is how many of them resemble Laird Taylor, who spoke at the Fauquier County hearing and joined the VCDL for the first time after gun control took center stage in the state.

"This is more than just, ‘Don't take my guns away,'" Taylor said. "This is a larger issue as I see it and I'm kicking myself in the rear end as a citizen to get myself smart in things that I probably should have before. Better late than never."