Democratic Gun Rights Activists Seek Senate Power
Contentious Issue Could Get More Play Than Under GOP

By Amy GardnerWashington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007; Page C05

The Virginia General Assembly could become more friendly to gun rights advocates despite gains by Democrats in state elections this month, several lawmakers and advocates said.

But the specter of the April massacre at Virginia Tech could soften the effects of that change as relatives of victims prepare to push for greater restrictions on gun sales and possession, particularly on college campuses. Democrats will control the state Senate with a 21 to 19 majority when lawmakers begin their new terms in January, but those who support stricter controls on gun possession and purchases will hold only a narrow majority in the Senate Democratic Caucus. Several Democratic proponents of gun rights are seeking seats on the committee that considers gun bills, and the possibility looms that the issue could get greater attention in coming months than under the moderate Republicans who had controlled the Senate and the committee.

Under Republican control, for example, the committee voted to restrict purchases at gun shows, a measure that has attracted overwhelming opposition in the House.

"The Courts Committee will become more friendly to the Second Amendment," said state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), an avid defender of gun rights. "The most interesting change is the internal battle in the Democratic Caucus."

Attention to gun restrictions has ebbed and flowed in Richmond in recent years, but several factors could push the issue forward when lawmakers convene in January.

One is the Virginia Tech shooting, which could create a surge of demand for new gun controls. Gun rights activists will be braced to oppose such legislation. Many colleges and universities have policies prohibiting gun possession. Gun rights advocates are also planning to push protections for permit holders that would supersede those campus policies.

"If you have a permit, then no state agency should be able to override that," said Michael Stollenwerk, a member of the gun rights organization Virginia Citizens Defense League. "Most students who carry guns are going to have a concealed handgun permit."

Another issue fueling the debate is the effort by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to clamp down on the illegal sale of guns in Virginia, which he says have been used to commit crimes in New York. Bloomberg and most gun control advocates in the legislature want to close what they call Virginia's gun show "loophole," which allows gun owners who are not licensed dealers to sell guns at such shows without performing the required background checks.

Opponents of the idea say criminals and gun traffickers, the sources of most guns used in violent crime in urban areas, don't buy guns at gun shows. They say the proposal would restrict the ability of law-abiding gun users to purchase a firearm.

"I think the Senate will continue to look at guns the way that Mark Warner looks at guns," said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), referring to the former governor's tendency to support gun rights. "In that respect, I don't think we'll be out of step with the majority of Virginians."

The issue of gun rights in Virginia has long cut more along rural and urban lines than partisan ones. With rural Virginia's historic power in Richmond and its stiff control over the relevant committees in the General Assembly, lawmakers have long leaned toward the protection of gun rights.

Even Democrats from urban areas, such as Warner and his successor, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, have been cautious about embracing gun controls.

But the dominance of rural sentiment is shifting. Urban Democrats, mostly from Northern Virginia, will now control most committees and the Senate Democratic Caucus. Democrat Richard L. Saslaw of Annandale, the likely new Senate majority leader, supports changing the law governing gun shows and also supports allowing colleges to ban guns on campus, even among permit holders. He sees no reason for more gun rights to come out of the Senate.

"What more do they need?" he asked. "They got everything. What more could you do? Require every home to come with a surface-to-air missile?"

Saslaw wouldn't say whether he feels strongly enough about the issue to try to block Democratic gun rights advocates from sitting on the crucial Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

Both Deeds and Sen.-elect J. Chapman Petersen, a Fairfax Democrat who defeated Republican gun control advocate Jeannemarie Devolites Davis on Nov. 6, are lawyers seeking such posts. Both have voted in favor of gun rights.

If Democratic leaders allow the courts committee to lean toward protecting gun rights, the likelihood is good that the full Senate and the conservative House of Delegates would approve such legislation.

The bills would then go to Kaine, who is a bit of a wild card in the debate. The governor has supported gun rights but also has favored measures that restrict access to guns in cases where he believes public safety is at stake. Kaine has said he would support closing the gun show loophole if it came to his desk. His spokeswoman, Delacey Skinner, said he has not decided yet how to approach other proposals that might emerge from the legislature next year.

"He's going to want to hear from gun rights advocates; he's going to want to hear from his public-safety advisers; and he's going to want to hear from campuses," Skinner said.