In May 2019, a Virginia Beach workplace shooting resulted in 12 killed and 4 injured, 12 years after the massacre at Virginia Tech. Thousands of Virginians die each year due to gun related incidents. Why has Virginia continued to stand stagnant on reformative gun legislation despite decades of calls for change from constituents? We can look to the polarization of the Virginia electorate as an explanation.
Take the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL). The group prides itself as the “ONLY organization to get pro-gun bills introduced in every legislative session since 1997.” VCDL’s homepage includes instructions on how to contact local government representatives to “beat back all local gun control efforts” and fight “against tyranny.”
VCDL’s president, Philip Van Cleave, often boasts of the group’s extremist label. In a statement released prior to protests in Richmond, Van Cleave advocated for both open and concealed carry in the Virginia General Assembly and Capitol Building, as well as called on local militias to provide those already armed with additional security. Since 2002, the VCDL has donated only about $90,000 to Republican campaigns. The organization’s strength lies in its strong grassroots network and ability to mobilize voters.
In November 2019, a Washington Post-Schar School poll found gun control policy to be voters' top issue heading into the Virginia General Election, for Democrats and Republicans alike. With gun policy at the forefront of their plank, Democrats were able to capture the majority in both the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate for the first time in over two decades.
Equipped with this legislative power, Governor Ralph Northam signed several gun control measures into law. While recent polls and election results show the increased importance of gun control to Virginians, still not all agree. VCDL’s membership tripled following the general election. Hundreds of municipalities have passed Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions, which declare their refusal to enforce “unconstitutional” federal and state gun laws, following the lead of pro-gun groups such as Culpeper 2A. Pro-gun backlash is at an all-time high, and much of this can be attributed to President Donald Trump.
With less than a month before the Presidential General Election, President Trump has capitalized on the fear of groups like VCDL and Culpeper 2A. On October 5th, President Donald Trump tweeted, “I am the only thing between you and your Second Amendment.”
President Trump’s rhetoric is inaccurate and deceptive. Governor Northam does not have plans to “obliterate” the Second Amendment; he is working to satisfy the requests of Virginia voters, enacting common sense laws that will create a safer state for all citizens. Recent legislation in Virginia follows that of many others. In 2018, eight states, including our neighboring state of Maryland, enacted red flag laws after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Two years later, through Senate Bill 240 and House Bill 674, Virginia finally established a similar Extreme Risk Protective Order.
Furthermore, to completely rid the state of guns and repeal the Second Amendment would be incredibly difficult. Amendments to the U.S. Constitution must be proposed and passed by two-thirds of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Then, they must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. Alternatively, a Constitutional Convention must be called by two-thirds of the state legislatures, which has not been used since the initial 1787 Constitutional Convention. In the last 100 years, only eight amendments have been passed despite thousands of proposals.
Virginia gun politics is a never-ending tug-of-war between pro-gun or pro-gun safety citizens and legislators. Over the past four years, pro-gun groups have been consistently and wrongly manipulated by President Trump’s political agenda, as he spreads falsehoods about Democratic gun control legislation in an effort to be reelected. As long as the President perpetuates his harmful rhetoric, the longtime divide on gun control will continue to grow, denying Virginians legislative protection from gun violence.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.
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