- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2019

Gun control activists believe the spate of high-profile mass shootings this summer shifted the political ground on the issue, and they will get their first chance to prove it Tuesday in Virginia, where voters are told it’s the top issue in the battle for control of the state’s General Assembly.

Advocates have poured millions of dollars into the state. The majority of funding in support of gun control came from billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg, who was trying to forge a Democratic victory that he and fellow activists believe will clear the way for more gun restrictions.

At stake are all the seats in the House of Delegates, where Republicans are hanging on to a 51-49 lead, and all the seats in the Senate, where Republicans have a 21-19 advantage. A single Democratic pickup in the Senate would flip control because the lieutenant governor, who presides and casts tie-breaking votes, is a Democrat.

“I think it’s always been a gun election,” said John Crump, the state director at Gun Owners of America. He said both sides are watching to see whether the politics have shifted. “If the anti-gun politicians do win the election, it will embolden people like [Democratic presidential candidates] Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. At the same time, if [the General Assembly] remains in pro-gun hands, it’s a good sign on the national level.”

The other big elections this week, governor’s races in conservative Mississippi and Kentucky, aren’t particularly good tests for the gun issue.



That’s not the case in Virginia, which used to be solidly red and deeply pro-gun — the Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association have headquarters in the state — but has changed over the past two decades.

Mr. Crump said an influx of newcomers with more liberal leanings has changed the dynamic. Most of the state, geographically, remains pro-gun, he said, but the big population centers of Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and the Richmond area “have taken a turn to the left.”

Those are the exact regions for key races, particularly in the battle for the state Senate.

Perhaps the most heated exchange over gun laws is in Virginia Beach, where Republican Sen. Bill DeSteph has been battered by ads from Missy Cotter Smasal, a Democrat who calls her opponent an “extremist.”

Ms. Cotter Smasal has partnered with Everytown for Gun Safety, Mr. Bloomberg’s group, on an ad featuring a woman who survived a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach government building in May.

Mr. DeSteph, in his response ad, accuses Democrats of exploiting the tragedy. He says he supported some bills that would have stiffened penalties for gun crimes but remains a supporter of Second Amendment rights.

The Virginia Beach shooting, in which 12 people and the gunman were killed, brought the issue home for Virginia. The state already had gone through soul-searching after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech and after a Roanoke television reporter and a photojournalist were slain on live TV in 2015.

This time, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat seeking to regain his political footing after an embarrassing blackface scandal, called the legislature into special session and demanded stricter laws.

The Republican-led chambers instead quickly adjourned after less than two hours, saying they didn’t want to respond in the heat of passion. They kicked the issue to the state’s bipartisan crime commission for a more thoughtful study and recommendations.

Cutting short the legislative session is now a powerful political weapon against lawmakers involved in the decision, said Robyn Sordelett, an activist with Moms Demand Action, part of Mr. Bloomberg’s group.

Ms. Sordelett, who lives in Prince George County south of Richmond, said cutting off the assembly debate on guns horrified voters and further elevated firearms.

“It has skyrocketed to the top of the issues,” she said.

Ms. Sordelett called gun control a nonpartisan issue, and that may be true for voters.

But for lawmakers and for groups such as the NRA and Moms Demand Action, it’s about as partisan as can be.

Gun control activists say a Democrat-controlled assembly would deliver the restrictions they are demanding. Second Amendment supporters count on Republican control to squelch any action.

So eager are the gun control advocates to secure a Democratic majority that they have branched out to run ads on other issues in the liberal playbook, said Willes K. Lee, a Virginia resident and second vice president of the NRA.

“They’re desperately trying make this appear as a ‘gun election’ by fogging it up with other issues,” he said, adding that national gun control groups are outspending the NRA by a ratio of 8-to-1.

Education, health care and spending are perennial issues, and the state’s right-to-work status is also seen in danger if Democrats win control of the General Assembly. Some analysts consider the election a referendum on President Trump.

But the ads on other issues could indicate that the shooting rampage in late May isn’t resonating as well as gun control activists had hoped.

One Republican campaign official said polling backs up that theory.

The Virginia Beach shooting didn’t move the needle at all, the Republican strategist said. The August shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, did cause a spike in interest, but it’s not clear they are producing any new voters. Instead, the shootings resonated with Democrats already poised to vote, the official said.

Everytown for Gun Safety has polling from over the summer in the three big population centers in Virginia that suggests otherwise. They found that when voters are told that Republicans oppose red flag laws to take guns from the hands of those deemed dangerous, it drew the largest — and negative — reaction of any issue tested.

“Put another way, the issue of gun violence and policies to address gun violence are top-of-mind for likely November 2019 Virginia General Assembly voters in swing districts throughout the state,” the group’s pollster concluded.

Mr. Crump, the Gun Owners of America official, said he sees the attention on gun control benefiting his side.

“The more that they campaign on anti-gun politics, I think the more it’s going to encourage pro-gun people in the state to get out and vote,” he said.

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