Gun Control Is Front and Center in Virginia Races A mass shooting there this spring that left 12 dead has put the issue into sharp focus. Democrats — bolstered by large cash infusions from gun control groups — hope to turn the state legislature blue.
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Gun Control Is Front And Center In Virginia Races

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Gun Control Is Front And Center In Virginia Races

Gun Control Is Front And Center In Virginia Races

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Virginia is one of a handful of states holding off-year elections in November, and gun control has emerged as a key campaign issue there, amplified by the mass shooting in Virginia Beach this past May that left 12 people dead. National gun control groups see an opportunity to flip the Republican-controlled state legislature, and they're spending more than ever before on these local races. NPR's Melissa Block profiles one race that could be a bellwether for 2020.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: In Virginia Beach, F-18 fighter jets from the local naval air station are a constant soundtrack. People will tell you that's the sound of freedom. And so no surprise in this heavily military city, the two candidates vying for the 8th District state Senate seat highlight their military credentials.


MISSY COTTER SMASAL: I'm Missy Cotter Smasal. I served as an officer in the Navy during Operation Enduring Freedom.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A Desert Storm veteran, Bill DeSteph served our nation as a Naval Special Warfare intelligence officer.

BLOCK: Republican DeSteph is the incumbent. Democrat Cotter Smasal is a political newcomer, and with the May 31 mass shooting fresh in mind, she's campaigning hard on gun control. Last week she began airing a TV ad that features Karen Havekost, who survived the shooting in the municipal building.


KAREN HAVEKOST: I walked out of the bathroom. I saw the gunman on the other end of the hallway. And I saw a co-worker in the middle, and he looked at me, and he yelled go.

BLOCK: In the ad, Havekost faults DeSteph for protecting gun rights.


HAVEKOST: He blocked the Senate from even voting on gun safety laws. He has a chance to make a difference, but he refuses to do it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Missy Cotter Smasal is using our local tragedy for her political gain. It's shameful.

BLOCK: Within a couple of days, DeSteph hit back with this response ad.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A veteran, Bill DeSteph is the only candidate who will defend our Second Amendment rights.

BLOCK: DeSteph is a gun collector and a licensed firearms dealer. He declined an interview but sent a statement that says, in part, my opponent has a lot to learn about our community if she thinks that voters will be fooled by her attempts to gain a political advantage from this tragedy.

In response to the Virginia Beach shooting, the Democratic governor ordered the legislature into special session to vote on gun control bills, including universal background checks and a red flag law. Instead, Republicans shut down the session after 90 minutes, voting to adjourn until after the November elections and calling for more study. The next month, right after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Senator DeSteph appeared on a conservative talk radio show.


BILL DESTEPH: This isn't a gun control issue; this is a mental health issue.

BLOCK: And he warned against what he called a knee-jerk reaction to mass shootings.


DESTEPH: It's a time to study it, figure out what combination is going to be the appropriate response. Is it more discipline in schools? Is it more fathers in the families?

BLOCK: The Legislature's inaction outraged Democrats and lit a fuse under their fundraising. Gun control groups are spending millions, about 10 times as much as the NRA, on Virginia races. Still, the chair of the state Republican Party, Jack Wilson, says he's not worried.

JACK WILSON: This isn't the first year that the folks that want to grab Virginians' guns have come into the Commonwealth and spent money on it. So we're not surprised by that. And I think when we get down to it, the voters of Virginia aren't ready to turn into California or New Jersey.

BLOCK: But Democrat Missy Cotter Smasal says her push for tighter gun laws is right in step with Virginia voters. She points to polls showing Virginians overwhelmingly support universal background checks and red flag laws.

COTTER SMASAL: People like Bill DeSteph and the gun lobby really tried to bully people into silence so that they can continue their agenda. And we're not going to be bullied by them; we're going to stand up for what's right, for what the people here in Virginia Beach want, for what Virginians across the Commonwealth want, and that's commonsense gun violence prevention.

BLOCK: Last week, I followed along as Cotter Smasal canvassed in a wealthy Virginia Beach neighborhood, sporting red, white and blue sneakers patterned with stars and stripes.


COTTER SMASAL: Hi. My name's Missy. I just wanted to come by and introduce myself. I'm running for the Virginia Senate.

MILDRED MANGER: I've been seeing your signs everywhere.

COTTER SMASAL: Oh, good. I'm glad.

BLOCK: This voter, Mildred Manger, clearly needed no convincing on gun control.

MANGER: It's just stupid that everybody has to have a gun. I mean, give me a break. I mean, how could anybody not focus on this? Just don't get me going. It's just bad.

BLOCK: Talk to local volunteers with the group Moms Demand Action, and they point to a palpable shift in public opinion since the mass shooting in Virginia Beach.

ALLISON GRAVES: I see some people who would never be political coming out and saying, something's got to change.

BLOCK: Allison Graves volunteers with the group, knocking on doors to support candidates who favor tighter gun laws. For her, it's personal. Her husband survived the mass shooting hiding under his desk as the rampage unfolded just outside his office door.

GRAVES: The activism is a part of healing. Something has to be done, and I can't sit on the sidelines.

BLOCK: Four years ago, the Republican, Bill DeSteph, won his seat handily, by 18 points. If Missy Cotter Smasal manages to defeat him on November 5, political science professor Quentin Kidd of Christopher Newport University says he'll give credit to the issue of gun control and to mobilized and energized women voters. And that, he says, would have implications well beyond Virginia Beach.

QUENTIN KIDD: It would be a big signal to candidates across the country, especially in these suburban areas - you know, the suburban Phillies, the suburban Kansas Cities, the suburban Clevelands - that you can use the issue of gun control and you can win on it.

BLOCK: And, Kidd says, that would herald a major political shift.

KIDD: Because it wasn't so long ago where a Democrat was afraid to talk about gun control because it was going to punish them in a big way. It would be a sea change.

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, Virginia Beach.


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