Blacksburg native Catherine Koebel attended a meet-and-greet event with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello for one reason: to grill him about guns.
Perriello was on a tour of 15 colleges and universities across the commonwealth to talk to students about their tuition and debt concerns.
When he stopped at the Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea in Salem to meet with Roanoke College students days before the 10th anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting in April, Koebel ambushed him.
“I personally came here today because I’m worried,” she said. “I’m worried that I’m going to have a hard time trusting you during this primary, and that’s because 10 years ago my life was changed forever.”
The gun violence prevention advocate, whose father was a professor at Tech in 2007, gave Perriello an earful and barely let him get a word in edgewise as she railed against his connection to the National Rifle Association.
In 2008, Perriello touted his “A” rating from the NRA when he first ran in Virginia’s conservative-leaning 5th Congressional District. He also took several campaign contributions from the NRA in 2009 and 2010.
The one-term congressman has since called the NRA a “nut-job extremist organization,” and distanced himself from it, he explained to Koebel and others in the room.
“I appreciate where you’re coming from, but if you think we haven’t pissed off the NRA, you haven’t been listening,” he said.
Perriello’s explanation wasn’t satisfying enough for Koebel, a founder of the Blue Ridge Coalition Against Gun Violence who counts herself as a supporter of Perriello’s Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.
The two Democrats will face off in a June 13 primary election. The NRA recently branded both candidates with “F” ratings.
As some gun violence prevention advocates across the commonwealth have declared their support for Northam, it appears Perriello’s previous relationship with the gun lobby may be haunting his gubernatorial bid and hurting his chances with Democrats who count gun control among their top legislative priorities.
Northam, who served a term in the Virginia Senate before running for lieutenant governor, has picked up support in his gubernatorial bid from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a wing of Everytown for Gun Safety, and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Lori Haas, the coalition’s Virginia state director whose daughter Emily is a survivor of the Tech shootings, appeared in Northam’s first televised campaign commercial. Andy Parker also has endorsed Northam’s gubernatorial bid. He’s the father of former WDBJ reporter Alison Parker, who was shot and killed on live TV in 2015.
Many of these supporters agree Northam has supported the gun violence prevention cause for years, when Perriello did not.
Northam stood against the NRA after the shooting at Tech, said Moms Demand volunteer Jennifer Herrera. Moms Demand formed in 2012 after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
As a state senator, Northam stood with family members of Tech shooting victims to call for a ban on some assault weapons and high-capacity magazines — legislative efforts the Republican-controlled General Assembly quickly rejected.
Northam also voted to close the “gun show loophole” in 2009, a bill that died in the Senate, and he voted against repealing the one-handgun-a-month law in 2012. The repeal passed anyway. In 2016, he used his tie-breaking vote as lieutenant governor to kill legislation that would have allowed some Virginians to carry concealed without a permit.
“We have two candidates that are speaking out in favor of common sense gun laws, only one of them has a record of standing up against the NRA and that’s really important to us that we support that candidate right now,” Herrera said. “We’re thrilled that Tom Perriello’s stance on gun violence has come around to match Ralph Northam’s record, so we applaud him for that.”
Moms Demand does not formally or financially endorse during primary elections, but its thousands of Virginia volunteers are canvassing for Northam.
Like Perriello, Northam has faced some tough questions on his voting record. At a recent forum in Arlington, Paul Friedman, the executive director of the Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Foundation, asked Northam about his votes in favor of the “castle doctrine” bill, which allowed for homeowners to shoot intruders, and a bill that stopped localities from requiring fingerprints from concealed carry permit applicants.
Friedman asked his questions to understand why Northam voted the way he did and to raise awareness for Campaign 32, a part of the outreach foundation that aims to make sure all states fully participate in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. In an interview, Friedman stressed he was acting on his own accord, and not on behalf of the organization. He would not say which candidate he will support in the primary.
At the forum, Northam floundered in answering the question about the fingerprint bill, but later called it “clarification legislation” to create uniformity among Virginia localities. He also replied that he has always been a believer in the “castle doctrine,” which is often compared to “stand your ground” legislation, because people should have the right to defend their homes and families.
“I’ve got a ‘D-’ grade with the NRA,” Northam said. “That should tell people where I stand on responsible gun ownership and what I’ve advocated for since I’ve been in public service for the past 10 years.”
The pediatric neurologist had a “D” rating from the NRA during his bid for lieutenant governor.
Northam’s stance on guns stems from the violence he saw during the eight years he served as a physician in the U.S. Army and the patients he sees affected by gun violence.
Parker, who has become an outspoken critic of guns after his daughter’s death in 2015, calls himself a single-issue voter. He is critical of Perriello’s “about-face” on guns.
“My issue is gun violence prevention and that’s where Ralph [Northam] has been solid all along,” Parker said.
Perriello and Northam’s gun platforms look similar. Both advocate for “common sense” reforms like universal background checks, limiting high-capacity magazines and keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and those with mental illness.
On the other side of the governor’s race, Republicans Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman; Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors; and Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, all have supported gun rights and have “A”” ratings from the NRA.
Perriello said the universal background check fight didn’t come up during his two years in Congress. It wasn’t a top legislative priority prior to an impending economic downturn, and legislation to implement universal background checks wasn’t voted on until after the Sandy Hook massacre.
But while in office, Perriello opposed reinstating a 1994 assault weapons ban and co-sponsored legislation to expand reciprocity by creating a national standard for carrying concealed weapons across all states.
After Sandy Hook and after he was voted out of office, Perriello served as president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action — a progressive research and advocacy organization — where his team released a study showing more gun violence occurs in states with weak gun laws. He also campaigned for Manchin-Toomey gun background check bill that would require background checks on all commercial gun sales. He saw the aftermath of Sandy Hook as an opportunity to make a difference in gun laws.
During Perriello’s 2009 to 2011 term, the Democratic Party was behind the times in responding to gun violence and championing the issue, he said. But the families of victims and survivors of the Tech shooting helped change the political landscape as they became vocal supporters of gun violence prevention.
Now, Perriello is quick to point out the NRA has become an “extremist” organization that represents gun manufacturers more than gun owners.
“I think that trying to get the balance right at the time of what it meant to represent the interests of a very diverse and quite conservative district was something I was trying to do as best I could, and I think I got some of those calls right and some of them wrong,” he said.