Guns, the Second Amendment, and Politics in Virginia

It appears that guns and gun control could become a hot issue in next year’s state level elections here in Virginia.  Attorney General Mark Herring started the hue and cry when he ended concealed carry permit reciprocity with 25 states on the grounds that they don’t meet Virginia standards.  Gun rights activists objected one the grounds that it would hurt tourism and that no one can point out a case where someone from a state with lower standards had committed a crime in Virginia.  One blogger called it “slavery.”  They complained that Herring just wanted to go around the General Assembly to achieve a liberal result using an executive action.

This of course ignores the plain fact that Herring did nothing unilaterally. Virginia code – in a section passed by a Republican-controlled General Assembly – requires periodic State Police audits of concealed carry laws in other states. It then mandates an end to reciprocity with those states whose laws don’t include prohibitions Virginia’s law bans, or don’t have a system for rapid verification that an applicant should not be kept from carrying a concealed weapon.  Whether or not he liked the result, Herring had to take this action once the State Police reported that the laws in those 25 states don’t pass muster.

Republicans in the General Assembly moved immediately to overturn this order, chiefly by proposing legislation that would recognize concealed carry permits issued in any state.  This would have been an interesting debate, in no small measure because it would have included a discussion of what effective standards would look like.  But late last week, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced a deal that would reverse Herring’s order and recognize a concealed carry permit from any other state.

The deal does include some concessions from the pro-gun side.  It would make possession of firearms a felony for domestic violence offenders with permanent protective orders filed against them.  And it would require State Police presence at gun shows to conduct background checks for private sales.  These provisions matter, but the deal wouldn’t require offenders to surrender their weapons, and most won’t.  Further, it only applies to offenders with permanent orders.  And it doesn’t require background checks for private sales at gun shows – only makes them more available.

All of this leaves gun-rights activists happy – the deal almost fell apart in fact, when Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said on a radio show that he would “make that deal any day of the week,” apparently breaking an agreement among the parties to frame the deal as bipartisan.  And it annoyed gun safety advocates who complained that they had no role in the discussions and felt sold out by McAuliffe.  These folks think the Governor gave away the store.

I would say that as a policy matter things came out about even.  Gun lovers think reciprocity matters a great deal – they would prefer a Federal right-to-carry law but universal reciprocity amounts to the same thing.  But I frankly don’t think Virginia honoring other states’ permits matter very much as a practical matter – I see it more as a symbolic win.  Gun safety folks didn’t get much either.  The really want to prohibit firearm possession by all known domestic abusers, and if they could make background checks mandatory for all gun sales in the state they would have a real win.

What about the politics of this?  Lowell has a good post on this over at Blue Virginia.  He writes that some Dems think this hurts Mark Herring, given that McAuliffe basically “cut the legs out from under him.”  His sources also think it hurts Ralph Northam’s chances of getting money from gun control groups next year and that it helps Bryce Reeves in a potential run for Lieutenant Governor in 2017.

To some extent events will help drive the political effect of this deal on next year’s state races.  Rural voters still matter in Virginia, and the Commonwealth is something of a Tea Party hotbed.  But it’s pretty clear that when liberals turn out to vote Democrats win – there’s a reason why Democrats control all five offices we elect statewide.  And there’s a reason why Senator Warner almost lost his seat to Ed Gillespie in 2014.  So my own take on the politics of guns in Virginia is that a Democrat who runs on a strong gun control platform – which I define as imposing background checks on more gun sales and making them stricter – will have more success turning out liberal voters.

Democrats in Virginia and elsewhere win when they support gun policies most people want, notwithstanding the loud voices of those who think anyone anywhere should have access to guns any time.  Mark Herring should stand up and loudly proclaim that he wants to make Virginia safer by taking steps to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and terrorists.  This will get the 82% of Democrats (and 57% of Republicans!) who support stricter gun laws out to vote  – and show Republicans that on this existential issue they lose.


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