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Clashes in the Capital: Public Opinion on Virginia’s New Gun Legislation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Center for Public Policy at VCU’s Wilder School
January 27, 2020 

On January 20th, Richmond, Virginia held its breath. This day, also known as, “Lobby Day,” brought more than 20,000 people to the state capital in a rally against gun legislation proposed in the latest session by the Democratic legislators, who now hold the majority in both Virginia’s House and Senate (in addition to the office of the governor). With their induction, many Democrat legislators vowed to bring about progressive gun policies, including a limit on handgun purchases, the establishment of background checks and the allowance of local governments to ban guns in parks and public buildings.

The proposed bills emerging from the newly flipped state legislative have caused the gun debate in Virginia to escalate. Pro-gun rights advocates like those who participated in the Lobby Day rally fear that the establishment of the proposed bills will infringe upon their second amendment rights. On the other side of the aisle, pro-gun-control advocates fear that violence will emerge from a lack of gun restrictions. In 2019, a mass shooting at a government building only two hours from the site of the rally resulted in the deaths of 12 people. The proposed bills, they believe, will prevent further mass shootings from occurring and taking more lives.

To gain a better understanding of public opinion in Virginia on the proposed gun legislation, the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs included questions on the topic in the Winter 2010-2020 Wilder School Commonwealth Poll. The poll was a representative sample of 818 adults, and had a margin of error of +/- 4.80 percentage points.

Two of the gun-related questions explored in the poll were:

  • Which of the following statements comes closest to your overall view of gun laws in this country?
    1. Gun laws should be MORE strict than they are today.
    2. Gun laws are about right.
    3. Gun laws should be LESS strict than they are today.
  • Please indicate whether you would favor or oppose the following proposals about gun policy. Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?
    1. Preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns.
    2. Banning assault-style weapons.
    3. Banning high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
    4. Making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks.

A majority (53%) of participants responded that gun laws should be stricter today. Three-in-10 said laws were about right, and only 17% thought that laws should be less strict.

In addition, significant number of Virginians supported the implementation of background checks (74% strongly favored, 9% somewhat favored) and the limitation of purchasing ability for individuals with a mental illness (70% strongly favored, 14% somewhat favored). While not as significant as the first two, the majority of Virginians said they supported the banning of both assault-style (47% strongly favored, 10% somewhat favored) and high-capacity guns (42% strongly favored, 14% somewhat favored). Despite the large number of people who attended the rally to oppose the proposed gun legislation, the data indicate that the majority of Virginians support the new legislation.

This polarized public opinion, as well as mass demonstrations such as the rally, presents a clear dilemma as legislators and Governor Ralph Northam consider the strong opinions of their constituents. Following the rally, Northam released a statement saying:

“Thousands of people came to Richmond to make their voices heard. Today showed that when people disagree, they can do so peacefully. The issues before us evoke strong emotions, and progress is often difficult. I will continue to listen to the voices of Virginians, and I will continue to do everything in my power to keep our Commonwealth safe.”

At the time this article was written several bills have passed in Virginia’s Senate and will thus move on to the House, including the, “Red flag,” law (which allows law enforcement to remove the firearms of those deemed to be a risk to themselves or others), a bill limiting handgun purchases to one per month, a bill mandating universal background checks and a bill that allows localities to establish gun-free zones. However, the 22,000 protestors that stood on the Virginia Capital, many of whom travelled from outside states, are a clear indication that pro-gun activists will continue fighting such legislation. Whether common ground is possible with such a polarized issue remains unclear; however, having a data-driven understanding of the public’s opinion on this topic is valuable for legislators. Creating legislation based on the majority’s beliefs rather than the group with the loudest voices will further bolster the backbone of our democratic system by amplifying the true voices of the people.

Author: The Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy advances research and training that informs public policy and decision-making to improve our communities. Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of Wilder School faculty, we services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights, and program evaluation to clients in governments, nonprofits, businesses, and the public, across Virginia and beyond.

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