In 2019, Virginia held regular elections for its General Assembly, the Commonwealth’s legislative body. This year, though, something was different. Not only were Democrats energized by anti-Trump sentiment, an unprecedented amount of money poured in from interest groups outside of Virginia. Bloomberg’s “Everytown for Gun Safety” and “EMILY’s List” each contributed millions of dollars to state campaigns. This funding, along with the changing demographics of heavily populated northern Virginia, led to Democrats controlling both chambers of the Assembly for the first time since the 1990s. This happened just months after Democrat Governor Ralph Northam convened a special session to enact gun control legislation in June 2019 during the wake of a mass shooting. By the evening of November 5th, it was clear that the Republican majorities that had quickly adjourned that session would not be in power to defend Virginia’s gun owners in 2020.
Dozens of gun-control bills had already been pre-filed when the Assembly convened in January. Eight measures came directly from the governor’s office. Among the most egregious was House Bill 961, a ban on countless commonly owned firearms, magazines and suppressors with no grandfather clause. That’s right; this bill mandated confiscation, or destruction of millions of firearms and accessories. Failure to comply by 2021 would constitute a felony. Pro-gun groups went into overdrive to oppose the measures and 146 jurisdictions declared themselves as “Second Amendment sanctuaries” in advance of the bill’s expected passage. Several sheriffs went on the record to make it clear that they would not enforce such laws in their counties. The stage was set for a showdown in Richmond, Virginia.
A massive rally was held at the Capitol on the morning of Monday, January 20, where a reported 30,000 gun owners protested peacefully. Much to the dismay of many media outlets who hyped the event as “the next Charlottesville,” there were no incidents to speak of. Despite the impressive turnout, Democrats moved forward with their plans and passed an amended version of the so-called “assault weapons ban” through the House of Delegates. Though the bill had been revised to grandfather firearms and suppressors, all magazines holding more than 12 rounds would still have to be surrendered, destroyed or removed from the state.
Passage of the gun and mag-azine ban seemed inevitable, given the Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers until, in a move that surprised many, four Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee joined six Republicans in a vote to defeat it. Though the bill’s failure to advance from committee was a huge victory for gun owners, it wasn’t all good news; other gun control measures promoted by the Governor did pass.
A bill that revives a previously repealed 1993 statute to restrict Virginians to obtaining one handgun per month made it to the Governor’s desk, as did a ban on private transfers. Anyone who sells or gives a firearm to a non-family member will now be committing a felony. Another bill that guts the firearms preemption statute passed, setting Virginia up to become a patchwork of local gun ordinances. A “red flag” bill that will allow authorities to confiscate legally owned firearms without a hearing also became law.
Virginia has always been an extremely friendly environment for gun owners since Republicans took control of the Assembly more than 20 years ago, but things have changed. The party that maintained a supermajority just two elections ago is now in the minority. The growth of Virginia’s D.C. suburbs has changed the political landscape of the Commonwealth, transforming it from red to purple, and now blue. Other swing states should take note of the Virginia example as their Republican majorities grow increasingly slim. If Virginia is a bellwether for national and state electoral politics, we’re all in for a rough ride.