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Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy

Wason Center

March 21, 2018

Despite Robust Public Support, No Action on Gun Issues

State / Issue

handgun as the base to a scale

In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting newly emboldened Democrats, several first-term freshmen, introduced dozens of gun control bills this Session. However, the Republicans used their one-seat majority and majority status on key committees to kill these bills in committee. Gun control bills in the House of Delegates go to a subcommittee of the Militia, Police, and Public Safety Committee, a seven-member panel consisting of six Republicans and just one Democrat. This means that virtually any bill proposed by a Democrat that comes to this bill that does not have the support of Republicans is likely to be killed instantly.

Examples of Democrat-proposed gun control bills killed in subcommittee this Session include efforts to ban bump stocks (an attachment utilized in the Las Vegas mass shooting that allows semi-automatic weapons to fire at speeds similar to fully automatic guns) and closing the gun show loophole (which allows private sellers at gun shows to sell guns to unlicensed residents of the state without asking for ID or running a background check as long as they have no reason to believe the buyer is prohibited from buying a firearm). A similar background check bill was also defeated in the Senate.

Virginia Democrats have expressed extreme frustration over Republican efforts to block gun legislation, and this frustration ultimately boiled over into a Democratic delegate sending a controversial email to his constituents that has drawn harsh criticism from his colleagues. Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) sent an email titled “How the GOP Makes It Easy to Commit Mass Murder,” which resulted in Levine being lectured on the “civilities of the chamber” by a Republican Delegate. Levine justified the email by arguing that he introduced multiple bills to committee that proposed common-sense gun reforms that are supported by, among others, President Trump but they were killed immediately. This instance is just one of the many examples of partisan politics affecting gun legislation.

Rather than restricting access to guns, Republicans proposed legislation that seeks to expand gun rights not curtain them. SB 372, sponsored by Republican Senator Chafin of Russell, passed the Senate along party lines before being killed by House Republicans. The bill would repeal restrictions on carrying firearms and other weapons into a place of worship, which according to Chafin would aid in protecting churchgoers’ safety. Governor Northam promised to veto the legislation if it came across his desk, but this disparity in legislative goals is evidence that neither side seems willing to compromise when it comes to gun rights.

Other Republicans have other proposals that mirror the logic behind SB 372, in that allowing law-abiding citizens access to guns in public places will help prevent mass shootings from occurring in the future. Sen. Richard Black (R-Loudoun) recently publicly supported allowing schoolteachers or other staff to carry guns in order to guard against mass shootings. This is an idea that President Trump floated last week via a Tweet after the Parkland shooting, and has been garnering serious discussion in the news since. Additionally, focus has been put on the issue of mental health playing a key role in the increased number of mass shootings, and this is an important consideration that will have to be taken into account for Republicans to consider passing legislation.

The Wason Center for Public Policy recently published survey research that detailed Virginians’ opinions on some of the key gun issues that consistently are debated on legislative floors. Our survey found that, while stark partisan differences exist, overall strong majorities of registered Virginia voters support gun control legislation, even some Republicans. 84% of Virginia voters—including 76% of self-identified Republicans—support background checks on private gun sales, illustrating that there is a general consensus that voters see this as an appropriate proposal. President Trump voiced strong support for this measure in a tweet on February 22nd, saying “I will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health. Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks! Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue – I hope!”

Wason Center survey on gun control.  Voters support background checks for private gun sales, with some minor partisan disagreement. Voters support banning the sale of assault-style weapons, but with a great deal of partisan disagreement.

76% of Virginians also oppose allowing a gun owner conceal carry a firearm they own without the person first obtaining a permit. However, partisan differences were evident when considering banning assault-style weapons: self-identified Republicans were split 49-49 on this issue, while 84% of Democrats supported an assault weapon ban, clearly illustrating one of the main sources of contention between the two camps. Another partisan gap existed in a question asking whether the two groups would rather prioritize the rights of Virginians to own guns or to control who is able to buy guns in the state: 64% of Republicans either favor or strongly favor prioritizing gun rights for citizens, while 82% of Democrats favor prioritizing controlling gun sales. This data further evidences the divide between the political groups and helps explain why the issue is so hotly contested in legislatures across the country.

It is important to note that this survey was completed in January and published February 7th, before the Parkland shooting. Pundits such as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver have pointed out that this most recent mass shooting has had a different staying power than prior mass shootings, both in terms of media coverage and the public’s attention to the gun control storylines resulting from the tragedy. Silver theorized that this staying power may be the result of some of the students who managed to escape the shooting’s public efforts to push gun control legislation through the “Never Again” movement.

This movement has led to numerous significant events, such as a CNN Town Hall with Marco Rubio directly taking questions from students from Parkland, as well as open questioning of legislators’ ties to the NRA and other special interest groups. Public opinion can often shift as a result of tragic events such as the Parkland school shooting, but never before have the surviving victims been so visible in the public eye following a shooting. Gun control appears to be a focal point for the upcoming midterm elections, and candidates’ positions on the issue will likely be major factors in their quest for election to public office. Indeed, exit polling from Virginia finds that for the first time ever, there was an equal number of voters supporting gun control as those opposing gun control citing the issue as their most important issue in the November gubernatorial election. Future legislative action may also be sparked depending on how successful the Never Again movement can remain, and the Wason Center will monitor how public opinion changes on gun legislation as the result of this tragedy.

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