Have you heard about the weird stuff going on in the lieutenant governor’s race in Virginia? No, I’m not talking about the Republican nominee, the African-American preacher E.W. Jackson, who has said that gay-rights groups have “done more to kill black folks whom they claim so much to love than the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and slavery and Jim Crow ever did,” said that the Democratic Party has “an agenda worthy of the Antichrist,” and called the Affordable Care Act “slavery-care.” I’m referring to the oddity on the other side, where the two candidates running in next week’s Democratic primary are trying to outdo each other on gun control—support for it, that is.
Chalk it up as yet another sign that, as I argue in the magazine’s current issue, the politics of gun control are changing, even if the bill to expand background checks fell five votes short of a filibuster-proof Senate majority in April. In Virginia—a state that is home to the NRA headquarters, and where gun control bills go to die in the General Assembly’s Militia, Police and Public Safety committee—it's not just safe now to discuss gun control in a Democratic primary, it is seen as necessary to discuss it loudly.
The race pits Ralph Northam, a state senator from Norfolk, against Aneesh Chopra, a former Virginia secretary of technology who went on to serve as chief technology officer in the Obama administration. In Virginia, candidates for lieutenant governor run on their own, not on a ticket yoked to their party’s gubernatorial nominee. It’s a relatively weak office, with one important exception: The lieutenant governor breaks ties in the state Senate, and the Senate is, at the moment, split evenly between the two parties. Among the issues that are sure to arise in closely contested legislation in the next few years are gun-control measures such as requiring universal background checks for gun purchases, should the effort to pass that at the federal level continue to stall.
Both Northam and Chopra say they support universal background checks, along with bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. But such is the perceived demand for gun control among Virginia Democrats that they are now battling on territory even beyond that trinity of measures. Chopra has gone on the offensive, arguing that Northam has been too accommodating of the gun lobby in the past, noting that he had a B rating from the NRA as recently as 2008 and that he sided with the organization in voting for legislation that would require municipalities that hold gun buyback initiatives to sell the guns back to the public, instead of melting them down, and for legislation barring municipalities from fingerprinting concealed-carry applicants. A recent mailing from the Chopra campaign attacked Northam for voting in 2012 to shield from prosecution homeowners who kill nonthreatening intruders: “Laws like these have been used to justify the death of teenager Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed while walking home,” the mailer declares. The mailer blurs the distinction between the castle doctrine that lies at the heart of the legislation Northam backed, and "stand your ground" laws like the one at issue in the Florida killing of Martin, but the Chopra campaign argues that the principle at stake is the same: giving too much leeway to gun owners to use deadly force when it is not absolutely necessary, without fear of legal repercussion.
The issue came up in the candidates’ debate on Sunday, where Northam sought to rebut Chopra’s claim that he had been too friendly with the gun lobby. He noted proudly that he had more recently been tagged with a D rating by the NRA. “They’re not a big fan of mine,” Northam said. “They don’t even bother coming through my door. I have a good record on gun violence and I will continue to be outspoken.”
The closest precedence for this back-and-forth is the 2009 Democratic primary for governor, when former state delegate Brian Moran charged state senator Creigh Deeds, the eventual nominee, with being too cozy with the gun lobby. Deeds tried to downplay his NRA ties, but with far less vehemence than Northam is now doing, and in fact his perceived restraint on gun control, together with his western Virginia roots, was seen as a primary argument for his candidacy even among many Northern Virginia liberals—here was someone, the thinking went, who could hold his own with rural voters in the general election.
But that proved not to be the case—Deeds was beaten soundly by Bob McDonnell. And four years later, there seems to be even less concern among Democrats about preserving a patina of acceptability to ardent gun-rights advocates for the general election season. “Virginians want safe communities,” said Chopra campaign manager Trey Nix, noting that polls show that over 75 percent of Virginians support universal background checks. “Virginians really do want common sense laws help keep their families and communities safe. I really believe that to be the case.”
Lori Haas, a leading gun-control activist in the state, says Democratic candidates are simply catching up to a shift in the political landscape that she traces to before the Newtown massacre—to the Virginia Tech shootings that claimed 32 lives in 2007 and injured 24, including her daughter. She noted that Gerry Connolly, a Democratic congressman from Fairfax County, hung on to win reelection in 2010, a terrible year for his party, partly by attacking his Republican challenger over his remarks blaming the Virginia Tech massacre on gun control. Then there’s Tim Kaine, who has now won three statewide elections despite an F rating from the NRA, in contrast to his fellow Democratic senator Mark Warner, who did his best to maintain an A rating with the organization until deciding to vote for the background-check expansion in April. “This is an issue important to Virginians, and leaders are starting to realize that it’s an issue that they can run on and win on,” said Haas, who both praised Northam for evolving on the issue and Chopra for making it a centerpiece of his campaign. “We had our Newtown six years ago, and I’ve yet to meet anybody that doesn’t have a connection to that tragedy.”
This is not to say that there is still a very long way to go for Haas and her allies in Virginia, where they remain greatly outmatched in the lobbying battles in Richmond. But when you have a state senator from Norfolk, Virginia, racing to put distance between himself and his NRA-friendly past, you know there must be something afoot.
Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him on Twitter @AlecMacGillis