General Assembly Special Session

Men carrying AR-style rifles walked past a line of people as the Virginia General Assembly held a special session on gun issues in the wake of the Virginia Beach shooting.

Gun policy is the top issue for Virginia voters just one month before pivotal elections that will determine control of the state legislature, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll.

That could be a positive sign for Democrats, who have seized on gun control in the months since a gunman killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building on May 31. Three out of four voters rate gun policy as a “very important” issue in casting their ballots, and majorities support proposals pitched by the Democrats, including statewide bans on assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips as well as limiting gun purchases to one a month.

Overwhelming majorities favor expanding background checks and “red flag” laws allowing authorities to take weapons away from someone deemed a danger. But the voters most concerned about gun policy split almost evenly between supporting Democratic candidates, 47%, and Republican candidates, 44%. Nearly every Republican officeholder has opposed gun control measures.

That signals that both sides of the gun control debate are energized for the Nov. 5 elections, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot. Republicans are defending thin majorities of 51 to 48 in the House of Delegates and 20 to 19 in the Senate, with one vacancy in each chamber.

Like the majority of Virginians, Steve Hunter supports certain gun control measures. He thinks taking guns away from people deemed a danger is a good idea. He not only supports background checks for all gun purchases but would like to see checks expanded to include social media posts that might offer insight into the person’s state of mind.

But the retired Philip Morris employee who lives in rural Prince George County intends to vote for Republicans, even though GOP leaders have quashed such bills. He fears Democrats would move on to measures he considers extreme.

“What makes a lot of gun owners leery that is, OK, you’re going to do that and ... it just goes on and on and never quits,” Hunter, 70, said. “You open Pandora’s box.”

In the aftermath of the Virginia Beach shooting, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, convened a special legislative session to take up gun control, but Republicans shut it down without considering a single bill. They referred the legislation to a commission for study. That elevated guns even higher as a campaign issue, with Democrats pledging action if they win the majority and Republicans warning gun supporters about the same.

National gun control groups have given millions to Democrats — one group alone, Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, pledged $2.5 million — while the National Rifle Association gave $200,000 to Republicans, the largest single donation it has ever made in Virginia.

Overall, Virginia registered voters narrowly prefer Democrats over Republicans, 49% to 42%. That edge widens slightly among those who say they are certain to vote, who prefer Democrats 52% to 41%.

Democrats’ overall advantage suggests the statewide mood continues to favor them, but control of those chambers will ultimately be decided in a handful of competitive state House and Senate races.

In an “off-off” year election with no statewide or federal races atop the ticket, turnout is traditionally very low. But the poll finds that nearly 6 in 10 registered voters say they are certain to vote, which is on par with interest in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election two years ago, when turnout was 48%.

History suggests turnout is unlikely to reach that level, but the poll hints that it could be significantly higher than in the last off-off year election in 2015, when 29% of registered voters went to the polls, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

“Turnout is the key factor,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “So many things seem to be pointing in a Democratic direction, but ... Republicans have always done a little bit better in these off-off year elections in getting their voters to show up.”

Legislative races are particularly hard to predict because factors are so different in various regions of the state. Democrats lead by a wide margin of 42 points in the inner D.C. suburbs, but in the more competitive Northern Virginia exurbs, Republicans are up by 12 percentage points. Democrats fare well in the Tidewater region, while Republicans have small edges in central/western Virginia and the Richmond/eastern parts of the state.

Education comes in just after guns as a top concern for voters, with 70% saying it is very important, followed by health care at 66% and the economy at 63%.

Democrats lead by more than 20 percentage points among voters focused on education and health care. Voters focused on other issues split roughly even in their partisan support for Virginia’s legislature.

The poll suggests gun policy is a more prominent issue to Virginia voters this year than it was in last year’s U.S. Senate race. In 2018, according to a survey of Virginia voters by The Associated Press and Fox News, 9% of Virginia voters said “gun policy” was the most important issue facing the country. That ranked below health care (27%), immigration (22%), and the economy and jobs (19%). It also ranked about even with the environment (8%) and foreign policy (6%). Among the 9% who said gun policy was the most important issue, almost 9 in 10 voted to re-elect Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

The Post-Schar School poll shows gun ownership is a persistently sharp dividing line. Nearly half of Virginians live in households with a gun, and this group favors Republicans by 16 points over Democrats in elections this fall. Democrats lead by 43 points among voters that have no guns in their household.

“I have a couple of guns myself, but I don’t think that anybody needs an assault weapon,” said Linda Leidy, 62, a retired social worker who lives near Williamsburg and plans to vote for Democrats in November. She supports universal background checks, limits on magazine size and a ban on assault weapons.

Leidy noted the two-year anniversary of a shooting that killed 58 people at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, in which the shooter had 23 assault-style weapons.

“Those people didn’t have a chance,” she said.

Overall, 58% of Virginia adults favor stricter gun laws in the state. That is roughly similar to the share of Virginians who favored stricter gun control laws in Post polls from 2007 to 2016.

There is broad support among Virginians for expanded background checks (88%) and ‘red flag’ laws (82%) that allow authorities to temporarily seize weapons from someone who has been deemed a threat.

That support cuts across party lines — 95% of Democrats, 89% of independents and 81% of Republicans support expanded background checks; 94% of Democrats, 81% of independents and 72% of Republicans support red flag laws.

The Washington Post-Schar School poll was conducted Sept. 25-30 among a random sample of 876 Virginia adults, including 55% reached on cellphones and 45% on landlines. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.

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The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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