Perhaps the biggest question facing the General Assembly — and its new Democratic majority — is what new gun laws legislators will pass.
Most of the gun-related bills that Democrats (led by Gov. Ralph Northam) are proposing would be new for Virginia — among them, a ban on certain types of weapons, “red flag” laws, and universal background checks.
One, though, would not be new. That is the “one gun a month” bill. Virginia had such a law once before — from 1993 through 2012. The politics of how it was passed — and later repealed — shed an instructive light on how Virginia’s politics have changed. And how they haven’t.
Let’s rewind to the early 1990s: The murder rate in New York City was hitting all-time highs — peaking at 2,245 people killed in 1990 and 2,154 in 1991 (by contrast, the most recent figure available is 289 for 2018). A study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found that 40% of the guns being seized in New York in connection with crimes came from Virginia. New York had — and still has — tough restrictions on guns. Virginia did not. That created a Virginia-to-New York pipeline for guns — legally purchased in Virginia but used illegally in New York.
This crime wave became front page news in lots of publications, but perhaps none was as influential as a Batman comic book (or, as some prefer, graphic novel). “Seduction of the Gun” in 1992 treated the Virginia connection as a plot point. “You still got those connections down in Virginia?” a flunky for a street gang leader asked a supposed gun dealer. “Chaka wants your butt down there and hook us up with some guns.” In the comic book version, the supposed gun dealer was Batman working undercover with Virginia police. In the real life version, Virginia leaders were not happy with how their state was being depicted. “The fact that the state has achieved this notoriety in a comic book strip should be an embarrassment to all Virginians,” said a spokesman for Gov. Douglas Wilder. “If the statistics and headlines don’t make the point, this comic book will.” Wilder asked DC Comics to send copies to every member of the General Assembly.
A comic book was hardly the only pressure point. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo — father of its present governor, Andrew Cuomo — asked Virginia for help. And federal authorities also made gun-running a priority for enforcement. It’s notable that there was bipartisan agreement at the time — Wilder and Cuomo were Democrats, but the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia was a Republican, Richard Cullen — father of Thomas Cullen, now the U.S. Attorney for the Roanoke-based Western District of Virginia. Wilder’s solution: Limit gun buyers to one handgun per month. “The Virginia-to-New York gun network fuels the distribution of drugs in every community of Virginia and up the East Coast,” he wrote in a commentary that appeared in The Washington Post and The Roanoke Times. “Interstates 95 and 81 — which traverse our state’s rural and urban communities alike — are now known as ‘Iron Corridors’ where guns are ferried from Virginia to New York and drugs are backhauled for resale in Virginia’s suburbs and cities. Rectifying this problem is not only in Virginia’s interest, but in the nation’s interest.”
Wilder saw this as a tough-on-crime solution. Gun rights advocates called it “handgun rationing” that would not solve the problem. In 1993, the two sides squared off in the General Assembly. And that’s where the politics of 1993 are a lot more interesting than the politics of 2020. Many Republicans backed Wilder’s “one gun a month” proposal — and many Democrats opposed it.
Perhaps Wilder’s strongest ally was Cullen, the Republican U.S. Attorney. Later he picked up support from another Republican prosecutor — Montgomery Tucker, then the U.S. Attorney for the Western District. The roster of Republicans who backed the measure seems incredible by today’s standards. Among the supporters: Steven Agee, who is now a federal judge. Randy Forbes, who went on to become a congressman. William Howell, who later served Speaker of the House. Bob McDonnell, who later became governor. Clint Miller, who ran for governor and later served on the State Corporation Commission. William Mims, who is now a state Supreme Court justice. The final bill passed the House 59-41 and the state Senate 35-4.
Why did so many Republicans in 1993 back a one-gun-a-month bill? There are several answers: The Republican Party was different then, with a lot more moderate members who didn’t see eye-to-eye with the National Rifle Association. The frame on that debate was also through the lens of crime: All those Republicans believed they were casting a tough-on-crime vote. After all, they only had to look to two Republican federal prosecutors who said so. “It’s great,” Cullen said, celebrating the bill’s passage. “This is going to stop gun trafficking. There’s no disagreement among the people who are going to enforce it.” A study three years later by the Virginia State Crime Commission concluded the law “had its intended effect of reducing Virginia’s status as a source state for gun trafficking.”
Here’s perhaps the most notable observation about the politics of 1993: The Democrats who opposed one-gun-a-month were primarily from rural districts. With the lone exception of Miller, who represented a rural district in the Shenandoah Valley, all the Republicans who backed one-gun-a-month represented suburbs. And suburban voters were terrified of urban crime. Later that year, Republican George Allen (who opposed one-gun-a-month) rode to victory in the governor’s race on a tough-on-crime platform of abolishing parole and building more prisons.
In the years since, there’s been a lot of political realignment. Rural Democrats are almost gone from the legislature. And, thanks to the last two election cycles, so are a lot of suburban Republicans. The party labels have changed but in some ways the basic configuration hasn’t: In 1993, every rural legislator in western Virginia voted against one-gun-a-month. Those legislators were just Democrats then. Meanwhile, pro-gun sentiment in the Republican Party has become an article of faith. By 2012, when Republicans controlled the legislature, it was McDonnell — by then governor — who pushed to repeal the law he had once voted for. The repeal squeaked through the state Senate 21-19. Making the difference were two Democrats who voted for repeal — Creigh Deeds of Bath County and John Edwards of Roanoke. Both represent districts with lots of rural voters.