RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Virginia Democrats proposed a series of new gun-control measures Monday as they gear up to try to regain the majority this fall when every seat in both chambers of the Legislature is up for grabs.
“Every 10 hours a Virginian dies from gun violence. We simply don’t have time to waste,” said Senator Adam P. Ebbin, D-Alexandria, a co-chair of the state’s Gun Violence Prevention Caucus, co-patron of the sweeping new legislation and a longtime advocate for gun control.
Monday’s press conference at the state capitol, held just as the state’s 2019 General Assembly session begins its two-and-a-half month annual session, came after several regional meetings to gauge constituents’ concerns over guns.
Delegate Chris Hurst, one of the few Democratic legislators in the state’s southwestern Republican stronghold, said protective orders were a top priority for his constituents. His legislation would pave the way for state authorities to remove guns from households where someone is believed to be at risk to commit violence.
Hurst, whose then-girlfriend was shot and killed live on TV while working as a journalist in 2015, said suicide prevention in relation to protective orders would have the biggest impact in his part of the state.
He said Virginia sees over 1,000 suicides every year and about two-thirds of them involve the use of firearms. He added that a majority of those suicides happen in southwest Virginia.
Hurst also pointed to other GOP-led states like Florida that have passed similar gun-control bills and to President Donald Trump’s School Safety Commission, which endorsed the idea. He said U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was even planning on submitting similar legislation at the federal level.
“Until that happens,” Hurst said, “We need to follow the lead of other states around the country so we can try and prevent as many suicides by firearms as possible.”
Democratic Delegate Delores McQuinn – whose Central Virginia district includes parts of the state capital, Richmond – has proposed legislation that would make it a crime to leave a loaded firearm easily accessible to a child under 18.
“I’ve seen the tragic impact of gun violence on families… it’s not only tragic, it’s costly for the state,” she said, noting the impact of the 53 gun-related murders in Richmond last year. “Our responsibility is to our young people.”
While Virginia Republicans have also submitted gun-related legislation this session, it aims to loosen gun laws, not tighten them.
Among GOP efforts are bills that would roll back a ban on carrying guns in churches and making it legal for firefighters and EMTs to carry concealed firearms while on the job, including into schools and other places where weapons are normally prohibited.
All the talk of gun legislation on both sides should make for an interesting election year, despite gun control coming in fourth place behind the economy, immigration and healthcare in a June 2018 Quinnipiac University poll on which issues matter most to Virginia voters.
Once a reliably red state, Virginia made headlines in 2017 when the House of Delegates saw a massive swing to the left, leaving Republicans with only a one-seat majority after losing 15 seats and helping to coin the phrase “blue wave.” That trend continued in the 2018 midterms when three Democrats unseated Republicans in reliably red Congressional districts.
The November 2019 race will see all 100 House seats and 40 Senate seats up for grabs.
Political observers like Stephen Farnsworth, director of the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, thinks new gun laws might not pass but they’ll impact the upcoming race.
“Polls show that robust background checks and limits on access to weapons by people who are dangerous are popular with Virginians,” Farnsworth said in an email.
He said while the Democratic minorities in both the House and Senate might not get far with these bills this session, Republicans could pay a price in November.
“If the bills are blocked, expect Democrats to focus on these issues during the fall campaigns,” he said.
But Shaun Kenney, former executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, said getting such gun reform laws to the desk of Democratic Governor Ralph Northam would be a betrayal to the state’s moderate voters.
“This does very little to reassure voters in the exurbs that a Democratic majority is not intent on selling out to its radical fringe, whether it is on gun control or a $15 minimum wage,” he said in an email. “Northam has a golden opportunity to govern from the center, but the question remains whether his base will permit it.”
Gun advocates at the National Rifle Association are also shunning the Democrats’ efforts.
Catherine Mortensen, media liaison for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, which is based in northern Virginia’s affluent suburbs, said the proposed legislation is an example of “failed gun control laws.”
“Virginians want elected officials to address the root causes of violent crime and find solutions that will save lives,” she said in an emailed statement, arguing those who are punished by expanded gun regulations are most often law-abiding citizens who are trying to defend themselves. “This latest gun control agenda is being pushed by politicians who would rather score political points than tackle the tough issues related to violent crime.”
No matter the political fallout, Republicans are still in the unique position to quash much of the legislation before it reaches the floor of either chamber, which has happened with past gun legislation mirroring the bills announced Monday.
The fate of these bills and others will be decided in the coming weeks.