One of the main topics concerning voters in Virginia ahead of the state legislative elections is where candidates stand on guns. According to a Washington Post-Schar School poll from last month, gun policy is considered the top issue for voters.

The discussion of gun control legislation came to the forefront in Virginia after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach claimed the lives of 12 people. A special session in the General Assembly sparked a back-and-forth between lawmakers on what measures would help prevent gun violence. The legislative session was eventually rescheduled until after the Nov. 5 elections.

The question of how much a candidate’s gun policy will impact how Virginians vote is still unclear. What we do know is how we got here, the differing views on guns from Republicans and Democrats, what measures have been introduced before, and how local candidates are approaching gun issues during their campaigns.

Virginia Beach mass shooting prompts call for special session

A longtime city worker killed a dozen people and injured several others on May 31, 2019, when he opened fire and shot “indiscriminately” at his co-workers inside the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.

“That they should be taken in this manner is the worst kind of tragedy,” Gov. Northam said during a news conference following the shooting.

FILE – In this Saturday, June 1, 2019, file photo, a girl leaves flowers at a makeshift memorial at the edge of a police cordon in front of a municipal building that was the scene of a shooting, in Virginia Beach, Va. On Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, police are expected to release the findings of their investigation into the May 31 fatal mass shooting. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The governor called on “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers,” when he announced a special legislative session on gun control just days after the mass shooting.

House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) called Northam’s decision to announce the special session only four days after the shooting “hasty” as he laid out Republicans’ plan on dealing with gun violence ahead of the special session.

We believe addressing gun violence starts with holding criminals accountable for their actions, not infringing on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. When the Special Session convenes, Republicans will put forward a package of legislation to stiffen penalties for those who use firearms to commit crimes, including mandatory minimum sentences. These steps, combined with our ongoing efforts to strengthen the mental and behavioral health system, are the best ways to keep our communities safe from those who commit violence with guns.”

House Speaker Kirk Cox

Special session gets rescheduled until after Nov. 5 elections

Virginia lawmakers met at the State Capital in July to discuss a series of gun control measures in the wake of the mass shooting.

Northam had proposed a package of legislation — including the requirement for universal background checks, reinstating Virginia’s One Handgun a Month law and banning assault firearms — aimed at preventing “gun violence and improve the safety of Virginia’s citizens and communities.”

Republicans argued that the mass shooting in Virginia Beach would not have been prevented by the governor’s proposals and the National Rifle Association also said “none of the governor’s gun control proposals would have prevented the horrible tragedy at Virginia Beach,” in a statement.

Anti gun demonstrators hold signs as they listen to speakers during a rally at the State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, July 9, 2019 (right). Gypsy Gonzalez and Adam Root, of Richmond, hold weapons as well as a photo that was in Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook outside an office building at the State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, July 9, 2019. (left) (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The Republican-led General Assembly adjourned the session until after the Nov. 5 elections without voting on any legislation. Republican leadership called on the Virginia State Crime Commission to take a “systematic review” of the mass shooting and the legislation filed for the special session.

“It’s an election year, it’s time to take a step back. The Crime Commission does have bipartisan representation,” Speaker Cox said during a press conference after the decision was made. “We obviously, as you know, think a lot of the bills should be on the mental health side, obviously making sure that a lot of case, the criminal is punished. Obviously, the Democrats have different views. This allows us to take a holistic approach.”

The bipartisan commission has looked over more than 70 bills as it prepares to give a report to the state legislature before lawmakers return to the State Capital on Nov. 18 to continue discussions on gun control.

Candidates views on gun legislation, campaign contributions and what measures have been introduced before

A number of the bills considered by the crime commission, including the reinstatement of the “One-Handgun a Month” policy, which was repealed in 2012, and the Extreme Risk Protective Order, have been proposed before but never made it to a full vote on the floor. 

Sensing the importance of the issue for voters, several candidates for Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate have focused on gun violence during their campaigns. The National Rifle Association has given nearly $275,000 to Virginia Republicans ahead of the election and gun control organizations have given millions to Democrats.

Shelia Bynum-Coleman, a Democrat hoping to unseat Cox in a redrawn 66th District, supports “common-sense gun laws, including universal background checks.” Her daughter was shot during a house party in 2016 and she has prioritized gun safety in her campaign.

The gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund has contributed $126,000 to Bynum-Coleman’s campaign, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

Del. Debra Rodman, a Democrat challenging for Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant 12th District seat, cites her concerns for children’s safety, particularly while at school, as a reason for her “fighting for universal background checks, red flag laws, stricter reporting rules when a firearm is lost or stolen, among others,” on her campaign website.

Sen. Dunnavant (R-Henrico) called gun violence “a crisis” in a campaign ad where she said she proposed a statewide 24/7 mental health hotline and uniform reporting to ensure “every violent threat is investigated.” Dunnavant also said that she “supported a federal ban on bump stocks used for mass shootings” and wants to open up juvenile records for background checks.

After the commercial aired, Everytown for Gun Safety, which has contributed over $51,000 to Rodman’s campaign according to VPAP, claimed Dunnavant did not support banning bump stocks in 2018 when SB 1 was killed in committee.

Republican Mary Margaret Kastelberg, running for delegate in Henrico County, has called on some gun-control measures, including Red Flag laws and imposing limits on high capacity magazines. Democrat Rodney Willet is running against Kastelberg for the 73rd District seat, Rodman’s old seat, and also supports “red flag” laws but has also called on universal background checks.

Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) says he supports “red flag” laws, penalizing improper storage and restricting minor’s access to guns as a part of his plan to reinforce school safety. His opponent, Republican GayDonna Vandergriff, has focused on community values during her run for office. Her campaign’s website does not address gun policy directly.

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