VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Chris Parker is the type of Virginian whom Democrats hope to get to the polls next month to help them flip the legislature and usher in a wave of stricter gun laws.
Parker leans Democratic and believes there “definitely” needs to be more gun control, including limits on military-style assault weapons. And he has a personal connection to one of the state’s most deadly mass shootings. As a construction contractor, Parker’s work used to take him to the Virginia Beach municipal building where a gunman killed a dozen people this summer, though he doesn’t know anyone who was shot.
But Parker, like many Virginians in an off-year election with no statewide candidates, isn’t paying much attention to next month’s contests.
“I stay so busy. I probably won’t even go out and vote, to be honest,” Parker said.
Democrats and national gun-control groups founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords are spending millions on TV ads, canvassing and other efforts to get people like Parker to vote.
In one TV ad, a survivor of the Virginia Beach shooting directly criticizes a Republican senator for not doing more to curb gun violence.
The Virginia Beach shooting was just one of several high-profile mass killings that took place around the country this past summer, leading to widespread calls for new gun laws at the federal level. But President Donald Trump recently poured cold water on prospects for a bipartisan compromise. In the absence of a federal push, Virginia’s elections have become a key opportunity for gun-control supporters.
“It is time for us to enact real common-sense gun safety measures, not just in Virginia but throughout the country,” said Ghazala Hashmi, a Democrat running in a suburban state Senate race.
Only four states are holding legislative elections this year and Virginia is the only one where partisan control is up for grabs. Control of the legislature will likely come down to suburban districts, many of which are in Virginia Beach, where anti-Trump sentiment has helped Democrats make major gains in the past two election cycles.
Home to the National Rifle Association’s headquarters, Virginia was once a state where politicians in both parties were outspoken supporters of gun rights.
But Democrats have become increasingly willing to back stricter gun laws as the state has become more urban and diverse, a move that’s also been prompted by the recent mass shootings.
Guns have been a perennial issue both at the legislature and on the campaign trail in Virginia, and gun control groups spent heavily four years ago when all 140 legislative seats were up for grabs. Still, there has been little movement on the issue in either direction. Republicans currently hold a slim majority in the legislature and have long blocked efforts to pass gun-control legislation while Democratic governors have vetoed pro-gun bills.
The Democratic party is hoping this year will be different: They need only to win a few seats to secure a majority and pass Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s package of proposed gun laws, which includes universal background checks on gun buyers and limiting handgun purchases to one a month.
The party also says voters are agreeing with them that GOP lawmakers shirked their duty when they refused to take up a series of gun-control measures that Northam tried to revive after the Virginia Beach shooting in May. City employee DeWayne Craddock opened fire with two semi-automatic handguns, a silencer and extended ammunition magazines, killing 12 people, police said. He was killed in a shootout with police.
Republicans quickly ended the special session that Northam called to address the gun control measures, accusing the governor of trying to use the shooting for political gain. Instead they ordered the state’s crime commission to study the issue and present recommendations that lawmakers will take up after Election Day.
Virginia Beach voter and retired professor Janet Meyer said she was disappointed the special session went nowhere and said she fears the shooting has already been forgotten. Meyer said gun control is a top issue for her and that she’s likely to vote for the Democratic candidate in her state Senate race.
“My husband is a gun owner, so I’m not opposed to guns,” Meyer said. “But I don’t think people should be allowed to commit mass murder because the Second Amendment gives them the right to own a gun.”
Republicans and gun-rights advocates have said Democrats’ gun control proposals are too extreme for most voters and punitive to responsible gun owners, whom they are counting on to help GOP candidates on Election Day.
“They’re really misreading the public on guns,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the gun rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League.
The NRA, which relies more on member advocacy than large campaign contributions, hasn’t come close to matching what gun control groups are spending. But it did recently give $200,000 to a top Republican House member.
Not all GOP candidates have been staunchly against gun control, however. Mary Margaret Kastelberg, who is running for an open House seat just outside Richmond, issued a news release saying she supports mandated background checks at gun shows, limits on high-capacity gun magazines and a “red flag” law.
“I know this problem is complex and that we cannot prevent every tragedy,” Kastelberg said. “But we must take action and try.”