Posted on February 3, 2020

What Made Virginia Change Its Mind on Guns?

Timothy Williams and Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, January 30, 2020


On Thursday, Virginia Democrats pushed through a sweeping package of gun restrictions that have angered gun rights activists around the nation, prompting a massive pro-gun rally in Richmond this month and spurring counties in Virginia and elsewhere to declare themselves as Second Amendment sanctuaries.

Along mostly party-line votes, the state’s House of Delegates approved seven measures, including limiting handgun purchases to one each month, requiring background checks for all firearms sales and transfers, and imposing a “red flag” law, which allows the confiscation of guns from people deemed by courts to be dangerous to themselves or others. Earlier this month, the Senate, split largely along party lines, approved four gun limits, including limiting handgun purchases, allowing municipalities to ban guns in certain public areas, and background checks.


This stretch of land near Richmond, which is one of two State Senate seats Democrats won from Republicans last fall, is a microcosm of a rapidly changing Virginia, with a simultaneously shifting array of views on guns. The district extends from the rural, wooded countryside of Powhatan County to the suburbs of northern Chesterfield County, and to neighborhoods in Richmond that have some of the nation’s highest urban poverty rates.

This district includes a wide mix of beliefs and voters. Recent voting patterns show that parts of it, like Powhatan County, which makes up the western portion of the district, are strong Republican territory. Chesterfield County, in the middle of the district, leans Republican. And Richmond, the state capital, is nearly solid Democratic turf.

But in recent years, the district has tilted leftward as once rural areas of Chesterfield County have been developed into housing that attracts young professionals. The newcomers often have brought different, more liberal political sensibilities, becoming a potent force on gun safety issues.


In November, that tilt became clear with the election of Ghazala Hashmi, the Democrat who won the State Senate seat with 54 percent of the vote. She defeated Glen Sturtevant Jr., a Republican incumbent who had been endorsed by the National Rifle Association.


Powhatan County is only a 45-minute drive from Richmond but can feel much further away, with its forested fields and hawks circling overhead. There, people said lawmakers in Richmond had gone too far.


At the root of this district’s — and Virginia’s — political transition is a slow-moving demographic change, a new kind of suburbanization that is sweeping through national politics. From Atlanta to Houston, this pattern is repeating itself — suburban housing developments gobbling up rural areas and farmland and lifting Democrats to power.

Expanding suburbs in the Richmond area, for instance, have meant that Powhatan County, which has been among the most dependably Republican counties in the state, now has a Walmart — and Republicans are sometimes challenged for local office.

In Chesterfield County, new jobs at Amazon, Honeywell and Capital One have boosted population and intensified the county’s political transformation. Demographers say that newcomers, many of whom have moved from outside the state, have helped swell the population to nearly 350,000 from 76,000 in 1970.

That growth mirrors a population boom in the state. Virginia’s population has risen by 38 percent since 1990, with the biggest growth in densely settled suburban areas.

The changes have prompted deep anxiety in rural places. Just 24 percent of Virginians lived in rural areas in 2010, down from 47 percent in 1950, according to census data.

In only three months, more than 100 municipalities and counties — nearly all of them in rural areas of the state — have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries. The designation carries no legal weight, but it has become a way for local officeholders to make clear their discontent over efforts to limit guns.


In the more densely packed, urban Richmond portion of the Senate district, gun crime is a continuing problem.

“The folks in the rural areas love their guns, and the folks in the suburbs are concerned about their kids in school,” said Richard Walker, a Democrat who lives in Richmond. “But the folks in the neighborhoods are worried about what happens when they walk out the door. People can walk out of their house and get an illegal gun because there are so many out there.”

Gun violence in Richmond increased by 32 percent in 2019, according to the Richmond police, including 59 homicides — eight more than 2018.