How a Grassroots Effort Shaped a Surprise Win in Virginia for Gun Owners

A push for stronger gun control has triggered a 'tsunami'
By Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao is a New York-based reporter at The Epoch Times. He covers national security, human trafficking and U.S. politics.
February 19, 2020Updated: February 19, 2020

An “assault weapons” ban that was rejected by state lawmakers earlier this week was the result of a wide-reaching and comprehensive grassroots strategy in Virginia executed by a handful of Second Amendment advocates and organizations, according to gun rights groups.

Executives at four gun rights groups told The Epoch Times that a barrage of social media alerts, phone calls, and emails to lawmakers, office visits, petitions, public awareness campaigns, and testimonies at hearings they helped organize with members were all contributing factors to the legislation losing support in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Feb. 17.

“The war on gun owners by the Democrat leadership triggered a strong grassroots response that spread across the state like a tsunami,” Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), told The Epoch Times.

The assault weapons ban (House Bill 961) was shelved to next year’s session after four Democratic senators—Creigh Deeds, John Edwards, Chap Petersen, and Scott Surovell—broke with their party and joined Republicans to reject the bill in a 10–5 vote. Lawmakers also asked the state crime commission to study the issue.

The Epoch Times reached out to all four Democrats but didn’t hear back from anyone by press time.

In Virginia, the league organizes an annual gun rights rally known as “Lobby Day,” which drew at least 22,000 Second Amendment advocates hailing from across the country on Jan. 20. VCDL members led gun rights supporters on the day as they conveyed their concerns to delegates about what they described as an “injustice” against gun owners.

“VCDL helped to harness that energy and focus it,” Cleave said. “VCDL’s massive Lobby Day rally as well as heavily attended general assembly committee meetings helped to eliminate some key gun-control bills and mitigated others.”

Other gun rights organizations detailed how they regularly informed their members of when and where to appear for in-person lobbying efforts. Some also issued alerts to businesses, telling them how the gun control bills would negatively impact stores and increase restrictions on Virginian’s hunting, sport shooting, and self-defense needs.

John Crump, Virginia state director at Gun Owners of America (GOA), said they used an “alert system” to deliver information to gun owners and used social media to spread their message further. They also helped members connect with lawmakers via phone and email.

“The grassroots efforts in Virginia to defeat the bill were nothing short of amazing,” Crump told The Epoch Times. “From the county meetings to the thousands of people taking to the streets of Richmond, these gun owners stood up to a tyrannical bill.”

Crump said the most important thing they can do as gun owners is to interact with their representatives. They’re far from being done, he said, adding that there are a number of other gun control proposals still being debated in the state legislature. GOA has more than 2 million members.

Epoch Times Photo
Gun rights advocates take part in a rally at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 20, 2020. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
Sandra Brandt (L), the chief of staff to Nancy Dahlman Guy, member of the Virginia House of Delegates, meets with gun rights advocates during Lobby Day as others take part in a rally at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 20, 2020. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Democrats recently won control of the state’s House and Senate chamber—for the first time in more than two decades—and have vowed to enact stronger gun control policies, saying it will help reduce shootings and deaths. In addition to the majority in the state legislature, Virginia’s governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general are also Democrats.

The so-called assault weapons ban was considered by Second Amendment advocates as the most egregious measure. The original bill would have banned the ownership of all “assault weapons,” but an amendment would change it to only ban sales and transfers of assault firearms. The measure could also still be brought up again by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

The bill expands the definition of “assault firearm” and “prohibits any person from importing, selling, transferring, manufacturing, purchasing, or transporting” one.

Following the vote, Eileen Filler-Corn, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and a Democrat, wrote on Twitter that “limiting access to weapons of war used in mass murder was a key part” of their platform. She said the House delivered on its promise to take action against guns.

Chris Stone, director of political operations at the National Association for Gun Rights, said that in Virginia, they used “thousands of phone calls, emails, Facebook posts, and in-person petition deliveries to get the grassroots involved in lobbying their lawmakers to oppose any and all gun control.”

“Angry voters are a politician’s worst nightmare, because come election time they cannot outrun their voting record when people head to the polls,” Stone told The Epoch Times.

That point was echoed by Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins, a Virginia Sheriff who told The Epoch Times that “elections have consequences” and that a push for gun control is “going to flip Virginia back red in so many ways they don’t expect.”

“When lawmakers receive endless phone calls, emails, office visits, and stacks of petitions from their constituents telling them to abandon their support for gun control, many receive the message loud and clear,” Stone said. “That is exactly why the so-called ‘assault weapons’ ban lost support in the Senate.”

Northam and other Democratic lawmakers in the state, meanwhile, have credited their focus on gun control for helping them win full control of the General Assembly. Second Amendment advocates have repeatedly decried the measures, telling The Epoch Times that the proposed bills violate their constitutional rights.

About a dozen other gun control bills have advanced swiftly through Virginia’s state legislature in recent weeks and could be passed in the coming days. Those bills include limiting handgun purchases to one per month, universal background checks on gun purchases, allowing localities to ban guns in public buildings, parks, and other areas, and a “red flag” bill that would allow authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from anyone deemed by a judge to be dangerous to themselves or others.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) was also “deeply involved” in the grassroots efforts, said Mark Oliva, the director of public affairs, and will continue to be. He described how members of their team spoke with legislators in 2019 when Northam had first called for sweeping gun control reform.

“Our state government relations director worked with committees and legislators’ personal offices to stop, slow down, and reduce the impact of this and other gun control bills,” Oliva told The Epoch Times. “NSSF representatives testified in committee hearings against these bills.”

Epoch Times Photo
An AR-15 semi-automatic rifle at a gun shop in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 13, 2020. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
Virginia State Police stand guard after gun rights advocates took part in a rally at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 20, 2020. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Oliva said they were “extremely pleased that the worst of this legislation did not pass” and said the gun control proposals would “leave Virginians vulnerable to the criminal element that preys on law-abiding citizens across the Commonwealth.”

The assault weapons ban, after amendments, made clear that any Virginian who already owned a so-called assault firearm by July 1, 2020, would have been allowed to keep it.

The other proposed bills will have to be approved by both the House and Senate before being signed by Northam to become law. Northam’s press secretary told The Epoch Times previously that while he was disappointed in the vote, the governor expects the Crime Commission “to give this measure the detailed review that Senators called for.”

“We will be back next year,” press secretary Alena Yarmosky said via email. “These bills represent historic steps forward in keeping Virginians safe from gun violence. Make no mistake—they will save lives.”

Following the Jan. 20 gun rights rally, which concluded peacefully, Northam issued a statement saying he would “continue to listen to the voices of Virginians.”After the rally, a number of gun control bills continued to advance through the legislature. A petition that calls for the impeachment of Northam has garnered more than 68,000 signatures.

As calls for Northam to step down increase, Virginia Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase announced on Feb. 17 she would run for governor next year, with her top priority being gun rights, according to reports. “I can’t take it anymore,” she said, referring to the gun control agenda being pushed.

Meanwhile, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action mobilized members by hosting town halls in key districts and sent grassroots representatives to educate gun owners on how to best communicate with elected officials. The NRA also posted digital billboards with a countdown clock to the 2020 General Assembly session on highways into Richmond and launched a website informing members of the gun control platform. 

“There is still time left in the General Assembly for mischief,” NRA spokesperson Catherine Mortensen told The Epoch Times. “Therefore, the NRA has not dropped its guard and is ready to mobilize our vast grassroots network to oppose any further attacks on our freedoms.”

Sen. Scott Surovell, one of the Democrats who sided with Republicans, said in a public statement on his official Facebook page that he does support the concept of an increased assault rifle regulation but that the bill had “numerous issues that needed to be refined.”

Surovell said they will focus on assault rifles in the next session “when we have more time after the Crime Commission has come up with a more workable product.” Virginia’s legislative session ends in March.

On the other side of the gun control debate, a similar grassroots campaign is playing out with groups that support gun control policies. At previous committee hearings, The Epoch Times saw members of Moms Demand Action actively taking part in lobbying as well.

According to its website, Moms Demand Action is a grassroots movement “fighting for public safety measures,” and it boasts 6 million members. Everytown for Gun Safety is its parent organization, and it also advocates for gun control.

Hundreds of local counties, cities, and towns across America are also declaring themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” or “constitutional counties” as part of an ever-expanding movement over the past few years. Local officials in these counties generally state that they won’t follow new gun laws they believe are unconstitutional.

Virginia, especially, has become the center of the gun debate, with 91 of the state’s 95 counties passing some sort of measure affirming their support for Second Amendment rights. A number of municipalities in Virginia have also been declared Second Amendment sanctuaries.

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