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Democrats See Shift In Gun Control Attitudes, But Not Laws

Gov. Northam at a press conference on Tuesday, flanked by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (left) and Attorney General Mark Herring (right).
Gov. Northam at a press conference on Tuesday, flanked by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (left) and Attorney General Mark Herring (right). Ben Paviour/WCVE

Catherine Koebel grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia. She says she watched the Virginia Tech killings there from afar with horror. In 2009, she became a gun control advocate in Richmond alongside those who lost family members in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

She says a lot of lawmakers weren’t eager to talk to the families.

“Even Democrats would like kind of turn their eyes down and kind of like not want to talk to them and run away in shame,” Koebel said.

But Koebel says there's been a “sea change” among Democrats since then.

“That sea change has happened, not because of some sort of like magic, but because people have been putting their foot in the rear ends of legislators consistently.”

But even if attitudes among Democrats have changed in favor of stricter gun control, the laws haven’t. If anything, they’ve become more lax after former Republican Governor Bob McDonnell  signed legislation in 2012 that reversed a law limiting Virginians to purchase one handgun per month.

This year, Republican-led committees and sub-committee followed what has become an annual tradition of quietly voting down over a dozen  Democratic gun control bills. That denies the bills a the chance for a hearing the full legislature, where Democrats believe some bills have enough support to pass.

On Tuesday, Governor Ralph Northam signaled that they needed another hearing in the aftermath of Friday's shooting in Virginia Beach, which claimed the lives of 12 people and the killer. Northam announced that he’ll convene a special session to consider gun control legislation that failed to pass earlier this year.

“It is unforgivable to turn our municipal centers, our schools, our churches and synagogues and mosque into battlefields,” Northam said. “I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers.”

Former Governor Bob McDonnell (Photo: Craig Carper/WCVE )

Northam’s legislative wish list includes mandatory universal background checks and allowing local governments to ban firearms in municipal buildings. He appeared alongside a slew of Virginia Democrats--the first time he’s done so since a racist photo on his yearbook page surfaced in February.

The state’s Republican Speaker of the House, Kirk Cox, seemed to allude to that in a statement. He called the timing of Northam’s special session “hasty and suspect.” He said the GOP would focus instead on stricter mandatory minimum sentence laws.

Republican Senate Majority leader Tommy Norment said Northam’s approach stood in “stark contrast” to former Democratic Governor Tim Kaine, who called together commission in the aftermath of the shooting to find ways to address the tragedy.

But at a press conference on Tuesday, now-U.S. Sen. Kaine focused on his efforts to change the laws, too. 

“When I went to my legislature, my GOP legislature and said, ‘Let's have comprehensive background checks,’ even in the months after this horrible tragedy, they wouldn't do it,” Kaine said.

Other Republicans, like Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) say it's too soon to talk about gun control.

“We truly need to bury the dead before we have that conversation,” DeSteph said in an interview after the press conference. “We should be focused on planning our funerals.”

Nor is he convinced that new legislation will make a difference.

“No gun control laws would have stopped what happened Friday in my district,” DeSteph said.

DeSteph is one of a handful of Republicans facing tough re-elections this year in districts that have gotten a few shades bluer. And polling shows some measures proposed by Democrats, like background checks at gun shows, are  popular with Virginians from all parties.

Koebel said Republicans know that, and are afraid of address the issue.

“I see it in their eyes,” she said. “They are the ones that want to run away and hide…. And politicians who run away are not politicians who stay in office.”

But the special session may also galvanize GOP voters. Hours after Northam’s announcement, John Finley, the chairman of Virginia’s Republican Party, sent an email warning that the governor was out to “obliterate our second amendment rights.”

Northam’s hands are tied right now by the Republican-led legislature. But with all 140 seats up for re-election, this November, Northam and his newly-united Democrats could soon get their way.

*Note: A  version of this story aired Tuesday on NPR's Morning Edition


Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.