The trigger of an AR-15 on display at SHOT Show 2024
The trigger of an AR-15 on display at SHOT Show 2024 / Stephen Gutowski

Analysis: Virginia’s Gun Politics Mirror America’s Polarization [Member Analysis]

This week, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (R.) sided with his party and vetoed a slew of gun-control bills. That came after those bills made it to his desk from the Democratically-controlled legislature on strict party-line votes. The purple state’s back-and-forth fight over gun policy encapsulates that of the nation at large.

On Tuesday, Youngkin rejected 30 different gun bills. The move cemented Virginia’s gun laws in nearly the same place they were before the legislative session began. Youngkin argued Virginia already “has some of the strictest gun laws in the country,” and the proposals would “affect law-abiding citizens” by “violating our constitutional rights.”

Virginia Democrats trashed his decision. House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D.) said she is “ashamed of the Governor’s vetoes.” House Democratic Caucus Chair Kathy Tran said they “threaten the safety and prosperity of our communities across the commonwealth.”

“MAGA Republicans have refused to act and protect our children, and Virginians will hold them accountable in November,” House Speaker Don Scott (D.) said in a statement.

Youngkin’s vetoes were a bit uncertain at points. He hadn’t run on gun rights. Democrats tried to use the gun bills as a bargaining chip for his vaunted stadium project. Outside of arguing Virginia already had strong gun laws during his State of the State address, he didn’t telegraph what he would do with the bill package.

But what was more surprising than Youngkin’s decision to block nearly all of the gun legislation that made it to his desk was the volume and aggressive nature of the bills that made it that far. And how they got there.

The package of gun bills included bans on popular firearms, like the AR-15, and a bunch of restrictions on gun buying and carrying. Most of them also faced uniform opposition from Republicans. But they received universal support from Democrats.

Not a single one of the bills lost a single Democratic vote. The party managed to get 30 of them through both houses of the legislature despite controlling each by just a single seat. That’s a remarkable level of cohesion around even the most controversial gun restrictions for a party in a purple state where they just managed to recapture the House and only by the thinnest margin.

It also comes just four years after the state saw one of the largest grassroots protests against gun restrictions in history. In 2020, when Democrats held control of the legislature and the governor’s mansion, they pursued a package of gun restrictions that also included an AR-15 ban (and even confiscation). In response, the vast majority of Virginia counties declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” and tens of thousands of people showed up in Richmond to protest the bills.

That culminated in Senate Democrats killing the AR-15 ban. Youngkin won the gubernatorial race the following year, and Republicans recaptured the House.

But Democrats won back the House and held the Senate in last year’s election. This legislative fight shows the party has only become more committed to passing new gun restrictions.

The lack of Republican support for 30 of the bills Democrats produced and Yougnkin’s vetoes indicate Virginians aren’t moving to the left on the issue. Or, at the very least, there isn’t agreement on that point.

So, what all of this tells us is that Virginia Democrats and Republicans are moving further away from each other on gun policy. And that makes a lot of sense when you look around the rest of the country.

Red states and blue states have been diverging for a long time now. Republicans have eliminated gun carry permit requirements almost everywhere they hold the levers of state power. Democrats have begun expanding gun-free zones to make gun carry nearly impossible where they have control, even in the wake of a Supreme Court rebuke (or, really, because of it). No red state has an AR-15 ban, while that policy has seen a resurgence in blue states of late.

Very few new gun policies have garnered cross-over appeal in the past decade or two. “Red Flag” laws saw some success in breaking out beyond the deepest blue states and into red or purple ones, including Virginia. But opposition to those policies has begun to calcify too, with Tennessee rejecting a proposal last year and Wyoming becoming the second state to make such orders illegal (potentially foreshadowing the next red state gun policy trend).

Republican-controlled and Democrat-controlled states are at near total odds with one another on gun policy now. Virginia shows that divide is extending to purple states, too.

But Virginia does offer a few caveats to that conclusion. For one, while protests helped prevent the AR-15 ban from passing in 2020, Virginia Democrats did manage to impose some less sweeping and more widely supported gun laws, including the aforementioned Red Flag law and a universal background check scheme. So, there are fewer reforms Democrats can push for before getting into more sweeping and less broadly popular policies.

Additionally, opposition parties tend to be more willing to vote for controversial policies they don’t think will become law. It’s easier to vote for a bill to send a message than for a bill that will have a real-world impact on your constituents—especially when you know at least some of them won’t like that impact. So, maybe some of the Democrats who supported this package of gun restrictions wouldn’t have done the same if they were sure the governor would sign it.

Youngkin also signed one bill with some of the hallmarks of a traditional bipartisan effort. In the wake of an elementary school child using his mother’s gun to shoot a teacher last year, the legislature got significant cross-over support to pass a bill that makes it a felony to give a minor access to a firearm–but only if there’s evidence they are a threat to themselves or others. That law addresses a specific issue that happened in the state but in a more targeted way that’s unlikely to affect many lawful gun owners.

Still, the back-and-forth in Richmond indicates the parties have become even more entrenched on guns than they already were.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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