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NRA seeks changes to gun laws against backdrop of Democratic Senate

person driving with protest signs
Last year, the regular rally by gun-rights groups was held as a driving protest. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Hot on the heels of sweeping Republican gains in Virginia, state representatives for the National Rifle Association say they’ll push legislation to undo portions of gun control legislation passed by Democrats over the last two years.

But the group acknowledges they’ll have to contend with a 21-19 Democratic majority in the state Senate through 2023. Any gun legislation will have to make it through a key committee where Democrats hold a 9-6 majority. Gun control advocates, meanwhile, say they’ll largely be working to prevent changes to gun control measures against the backdrop of Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin and an apparent GOP-majority House of Delegates. 

“I think we’ll be playing a lot of defense,” said Lori Haas, Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Another wildcard in the new political deck is Youngkin himself. Advocates on both sides of the gun debate say it’s unlikely Youngkin would be able to make major changes to gun laws using executive authority, but he’d have final say on any legislation that makes it to his desk.

The businessman declined to fill out the NRA’s candidate survey during the GOP nomination, though he is a member of the group and described himself as a supporter of gun rights. The group did not endorse Youngkin -- they typically don’t endorse first-time candidates who don’t fill out their survey -- but did attack his rival, Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Youngkin’s communications team did directly not respond to requests for comment on his policy views, saying in a statement the businessman is laying the foundation to execute campaign promises.

In a call with reporters on Thursday, a Virginia representative from the NRA said their top priority is making changes to a 2020 law that allows localities to restrict the carrying of firearms in public spaces like parks and county office buildings. Fifteen localities, including the City of Richmond, have passed restrictions. The NRA contends the differing regulations, particularly in Northern Virginia, have created a patchwork that’s confusing for gun owners, and will seek outright repeal or at least consistent exemptions for concealed carry permit holders and for storing guns in cars. 

Philip Van Cleave, head of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said repealing the law was also a priority for his group. The gun rights advocate said he heard more complaints about the law than any other passed by Democrats during their time in the majority.

“People are concerned about their right to carry when you start to say, ‘You can't carry here and you can't carry there,’ that's creating a dangerous situation for people,” Van Cleave said.

The NRA is also seeking an end to Virginia's red flag law, which allows family members or law enforcement officers to ask judges to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. Van Cleave, meanwhile, said his second priority is seeking to end a ban on firearms in state buildings ranging from Department of Motor Vehicles service centers to the Capitol.

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax County), vice caucus chair of Senate Democrats and sponsor of the bill allowing local ordinances, predicted none of these priorities would make it past the Senate.

“​​The state senate isn’t going to walk back on anything that we did in the last two years,” Surovell said.

Surovell said the concerns about patchwork gun laws were overblown given localities have differing rules around hunting and other regulations. The red flag law, meanwhile, appeared to be functioning smoothly, he said.

Any new gun control measures or rollbacks would have to clear the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Democrats hold a three-seat advantage. Both sides are keeping close tabs on a few Democratic senators who might be amenable to gun rights arguments, including Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke) and Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) “I think it would be self-inflicted harm if Senate Democrats did not hold the line,” Haas said, arguing that the provisions passed by Democrats were broadly popular.

At least one of the NRA’s priorities is achievable without the Senate’s approval: removing Haas from her position on the Crime Commission, a gubernatorial appointment by Gov. Ralph Northam that expires in June. The NRA contends Haas’ position as a lobbyist presents an obvious conflict of interest. Haas, whose daughter was shot twice in the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, said she’d served on behalf of victims and hoped to finish out her term.

Both sides of the firearms debate spent heavily on Virginia’s recent elections. The NRA said it spent seven figures on Virginia races and was actively involved in six of the seven House seats flipped by Republicans (two races in Hampton Roads are headed to a recount). Everytown for Gun Safety contributed over $1.7 million toward Democrats, nearly half of which went to McAuliffe.  But 

Van Cleave, who urged Youngkin to more forcefully support gun rights during the campaign, said he believed the newly elected governor would come through for his cause.

“I'm cautiously optimistic that he will be good on the issue,” Van Cleave said.

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