Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify Everytown for Gun Safety spent more than $2.5 million in Virginia’s election.
LEXINGTON, Va. — It was supposed to be a friendly crowd.
Mostly white, male and middle-aged, they had gathered in this college town in the Shenandoah Valley to hear about the National Rifle Association plan to blunt gun control legislation in Richmond, the state capital. About 200 people sat around the packed room; many leaned back in chairs, arms crossed, nodding along. A dozen wore black and yellow NRA hats.
But two months after voters gave Democrats complete control of Virginia state government for the first time since 1994, the mood in this carpeted Hampton Inn conference room was dark at times — even ornery.
“I pay my dues,” one man bellowed. “Where’s the NRA?”
Christopher Kopacki, the NRA deputy managing director, tried to calm the crowd.
“We are going to do everything we can to protect you,” Kopacki said calmly, standing tall at the front of the room with his hands in his pockets. “But you have to understand we have a numbers problem. It’s coming. I’m going to be honest with you.
“This is why elections matter.”
The meeting was in January. And despite the NRA’s best efforts, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam last week fulfilled some of the deepest fears of the people in that Lexington conference room.
Taking time out from overseeing Virginia’s response to the pandemic, Northam signed a slate of bills: requiring universal background checks on firearm purchases, restricting handgun purchases to one a month and allowing law enforcement to seize guns from people who may be a risk to themselves or others.
New laws in Virginia demonstrate that state lawmakers can deliver sweeping gun control measures even in a state where a vocal, well-organized opposition is fierce about protecting its guns and proud of its hunting tradition. Even in a state where many moderate Democrats hail from rural districts.
Even in the home state of the NRA.
While Virginia Democrats fell short of passing an assault weapons ban, they pledged to continue their fight next year, bolstered by gun control activists willing to spend millions.
The momentum in states to pass meaningful gun control legislation has not stopped since the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School made their voices heard after the February 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. States have enacted new laws that implement universal background checks, risk protection orders known as red-flag laws, and bans on gun possession by domestic abusers.
These laws aren’t just passing in traditionally progressive states. They’re passing in states such as Arkansas, Indiana, Utah and even Virginia — home of the headquarters of the NRA, which has dominated the gun rights discussion in this country for decades.
Big Democratic Tent
On the first day of Virginia’s new legislative session, a flotilla of red shirts descended on Richmond. Hundreds of volunteers for Moms Demand Action, a gun control group heavily funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat, met with state legislative staff to push a series of bills that would put stricter limits on gun ownership.
Everytown for Gun Safety, the umbrella group to Moms Demand Action, spent more than $2.5 million on the November election that swept Democrats into the majority in the Virginia legislature. They spent more than seven times as much as the NRA.
After knocking on 25,000 doors and making 100,000 calls before the election, members were ready to talk to lawmakers and fellow activists among their new “gun sense majority.”
Carmen Lodato wears a pin with her mother’s face — a reminder of the heart-wrenching murder six years ago in Alexandria, Virginia, that got her into the fight for gun control. She wants people to know her mother: Ruthanne Lodato, a victim of gun violence.
“Before my mom was killed, I thought gun violence happened to other people,” she told the group of more than a hundred volunteers that day, wiping away a tear. “Not me, not my mom. Gun violence doesn’t discriminate, and it can impact every one of us every day. Gun violence ravages too many people.”
Gun control activists felt they had momentum. But they knew they had to deal with the state’s deep-seated rural-urban divide, which could make moderate Democrats wary about going too far in enacting strict gun control.
State Sen. John Edwards, a moderate Democrat from Roanoke who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, knew he would have to contend with that divide. Some state lawmakers, he said, cannot risk coming across as “anti-gun.”
“I know there are some people who campaigned on purity on guns, but we’re still a big tent,” he said in an interview with Stateline early in the session. “Virginia is a big state. The purists need to understand that politics is the art of the possible. You’ve got to be practical.
“We want to get something through.”
Pressure and Negotiations
Whenever the Judiciary Committee met to discuss gun control measures, activists on both sides of the issue snaked through the gray-marble-floored hallways of the Pocahontas Building, where legislative committees meet, hours before hearings began. Sometimes, the line went out the door and around the block.
On that first meeting Jan. 13, the NRA enticed gun rights supporters with free firearm magazines if they showed up, but many supporters didn’t need the swag — they already were fired up after the Democratic majorities banned guns inside the State Capitol early in the session. They showed up in the hundreds, many wearing blue “Defend the Second Amendment” T-shirts. Others wore orange “Guns Save Lives” stickers.
“I believe in our Second Amendment rights,” said James Davis, a King George resident who showed up on Capitol grounds carrying a 9 mm Beretta and an American flag. “If we don’t protect our Second Amendment rights, then we lose our freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion. Everything follows.”
A week later, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an estimated 22,000 gun rights activists, many heavily armed, gathered on the Capitol grounds to protest gun control legislation. Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League and organizer of the rally, said the show of force sent a message to lawmakers.
“Contrary to what the other side is saying, the election is not a referendum on gun control,” he said. “It’s not about guns. Bloomberg paid them to say it’s about guns. There’s nothing here to back it.”
Democrats in both legislative chambers quickly passed some of the gun measures quickly, such as background checks, caps on gun purchases to one a month and extreme risk protection orders.
But the party showed signs of division. In several cases, the Senate watered down strongly worded legislation sent over from the more progressive House, as moderate senators balked at penalties they considered too strict and measures too broad.
For example, on a bill that prohibited “recklessly” leaving a firearm near a child, the state Senate lowered the age of the child from 18 to 14 and lessened the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Even on the altered bills, some of the final votes in the Senate were extremely close. Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax had to break a tie on two measures — one that would allow courts to seize firearms from people who pose a significant safety risk, a “red flag” law — and another requiring people to report a missing firearm within 48 hours.
Some of the House bills didn’t even make it to the Senate floor. When an assault weapons ban died in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 17, with the help of four Democrats who sided with Republicans, Democratic state Sen. L. Louise Lucas, the bill’s sponsor, shared her disdain.
“Bunch of wimps,” she said.
Democrats in Virginia aren’t a monolith, said state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, and to get measures passed party leaders had to consider a wide diversity of opinions. Her bill on reporting lost or stolen firearms failed in the Senate, but she was instrumental in getting a similar House-authored measure through her chamber.
In between votes, McClellan talked to moderate colleagues she thought she could sway, connecting them with their local sheriffs and other experts who could convince them to support that gun control measure. This is how she expects Democrats will pass an assault weapons ban next session.
But some members of the legislature aren’t open to being convinced. As one of the fiercest and most vocal gun rights advocates in the legislative body, Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase, known for carrying a pistol into floor debates, remained opposed to any gun control measures.
“I have sworn to and will uphold the constitutions of the United States and Virginia, so help me God,” she said. “The people have sent them a message and they want to be heard. They don’t like these gun-restrictive policies and bans.”
When asked by Stateline whether she was disappointed some of the gun control legislation had been modified or defeated, Democratic Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn insisted that her party kept its promise to voters.
“We were very, very excited with our successes and what we were able to accomplish this session,” she said. “It was a long time coming, a lot of hard work, and what we passed is truly going to save lives.”
The battle in Virginia could be replicated in other states with strong pro-gun cultures.
Everytown for Gun Safety says it plans to spend $60 million in the upcoming general election supporting candidates who back gun control legislation, targeting specific state lawmakers in Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
For these activists, the fight in Virginia was deeply personal. Carmen Lodato, the daughter of the slain Alexandria woman who spoke to her fellow activists, feels vindicated by the new measures.
“I hope that it can save people’s lives in the future,” she said. “I can’t help but think these laws could have saved my mom.”