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Gun violence protections are at risk in the 2023 Virginia legislative elections

This year’s election could determine the fate of historic gun safety legislation Virginia Democrats enacted between 2020 and 2021.

By Josh Israel - March 31, 2023
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Volunteers of Moms Demand Action meet in the lobby inside the Pocahontas building, Friday Jan. 13, 2023 in Richmond, Va. Moms Demand Action volunteers met with state legislators to advocate for certain gun control bills already filed for 2023 session including: SB 901and SB 1181.
Volunteers of Moms Demand Action meet in the lobby inside the Pocahontas building, Friday Jan. 13, 2023 in Richmond, Va. Moms Demand Action volunteers met with state legislators to advocate for certain gun control bills already filed for 2023 session including: SB 901and SB 1181. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)

Virginia enacted a flurry of popular laws aimed at preventing gun violence between 2020 and 2021, with Democratic majorities in the state Legislature and Democrat Ralph Northam as governor. Now, with Republican Glenn Youngkin serving as governor until 2026, legislative elections to be held this year could determine the fate of those laws.

Virginia is one of five states that hold legislative elections in odd-numbered years. On Nov. 7, voters will elect all 100 members of the House of Delegates for two-year terms and all 40 state senators for four-year terms. Gun violence experts say gun safety laws are very much on the ballot in those elections.

Lori Haas, who became an advocate for gun safety after her daughter was injured in the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, is advocacy manager for the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In an interview, she told the American Independent Foundation that the two-year period had been hugely productive.

“We passed background checks,” she recounted. “We passed extreme risk protective orders. … We extended local authority to jurisdictions to regulate firearms in certain circumstances, like public spaces, buildings and permitted events. We passed a one-gun-per-month purchase limitation.” She also pointed to a ban on “bump stock” trigger activators, a prohibition on guns in preschools and day cares, and several other new safety requirements.

The laws were broadly popular at the time. A poll published in December 2019 by the Christopher Newport University Wason Center for Public Policy found 86% of Virginia voters supported universal background checks and 73% supported red flag laws. A poll taken by the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Public Policy in the same month found 83% of adult Virginians backed expanded background checks and 82% wanted a red flag law.

Since the red flag law went into effect in July 2020, Virginia law enforcement officials have obtained emergency substantial risk protection orders more than 400 times, according to data provided by a Virginia State Police spokesperson.

The data also showed that in the years since the state’s background check law was expanded, tens of thousands of individuals have been denied the opportunity to purchase guns after failing background checks. The yearly average number of blocked purchases more than doubled from about 3,200 between 2010 and 2019 to over 8,300 between 2020 and 2022.

But in November 2021, Republicans regained a narrow 52-48 advantage in the House of Delegates, and the GOP majority immediately got to work trying to undo several of the laws.

Andrew Goddard, who tracks bills in his role as legislative director of the Virginia Center for Public Safety, began advocating for gun safety after his son too was injured in the Virginia Tech shootings. In an interview, he identified several bills introduced by House Republicans in the 2022 and 2023 legislative sessions that would have loosened gun laws.

“Of course a preponderance of them were aimed at repealing the legislation that we passed in ’20 and ’21 when we had both houses,” he said. “Repealing local control, repeal the red flag law, exempting people from the ban on firearms and explosives on Capitol grounds.”

State Republican lawmakers proposed legislation in 2022 and 2023 that would have loosened concealed handgun rules to a level greater than where they were before 2020. “The most egregious, I think, were concealed carry without a permit,” he said. “That’s something that the other side calls ‘constitutional carry,’ which is a complete misnomer.”

Several of the 2022 and 2023 rollback efforts passed the House, but died in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Others, including many of those introduced in 2023, were left in House committees without ever receiving a vote.

“You could look at it two ways: Did House Republicans not have a hearing on it because they felt like it was a waste of time?” Haas observed, noting that the bills faced a nearly certain death in a Democratic-led Senate. “Or did House Republicans not hear it because it was too extreme, in an election year?”

Both Haas and Goddard predicted that Virginia Republicans would immediately dismantle existing gun laws should they keep the House majority in November and regain a majority in the Senate. Meanwhile, according to the Gun Violence Archive, at least 74 Virginians have died from gun violence in just the first three months of 2023.

“We could be looking at a rollback of the majority of regulations of firearms by a GOP-controlled House and Senate,” Haas warned.”I think we would see public spaces less safe with more people carrying more firepower.”

“God, I don’t want to think about that,” said Goddard. “Let’s put it this way, in a nutshell, it wouldn’t be good.”

Youngkin said during his 2021 campaign: “I am a proud gun owner. As your governor, I will fight for our constitutional right to keep and bear arms.” He has said little else about gun issues.

A Youngkin spokesperson did not respond to an American Independent Foundation inquiry for this story about his specific positions.

Goddard said he thought that if Youngkin “got free rein and both houses and the governorship were Republican, we would see repeal across the board, and not only repeal of the things we gained, but taking us probably further back than we were before we had those gains.”

Liam Watson, press secretary for the Democratic Party of Virginia, told the American Independent Foundation, “The way I see it is that in Virginia, 2023 is a year of risk and opportunity for gun safety legislation.”

The risk, he said, was of extreme Republicans in the Legislature “pushing a radical pro-gun agenda that removes safeguards that Democrats have fought hard to put in place and enacts new legislation that makes it more dangerous to go to school, that makes it more dangerous to go to a concert, that makes it more dangerous to go to work.”

The opportunity would be that if voters elect Democratic majorities, “We can pass bans on assault-style rifles. We can pass bans on weapons of war, and we can continue to reintroduce bills that have been killed by Republicans this year,” Watson said, such as a bill requiring people to lock their cars if they leave guns in them. Watson hopes that Democratic majorities will also force Youngkin to take a stand on gun violence by making him sign or veto those bills.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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