Virginia Dems seeking more regulation run into impenetrable committee wall

Just one week into Virginia’s 2014 legislative session, dozens of people swarmed the state Capitol for what would become one of the year’s most important hearings on gun bills.

Inside the packed conference room, lawmakers considered bills on gun show background checks, public library bans and ammunition limits. Listening to the hours long debate, supporters represented their cause by the color of stickers on their chests: the blaze-orange ones read “Guns Save Lives” and the pale yellow ones read “Background Checks Save Lives.”

But before any lawmakers cast their votes, both sides knew their fate. Republican lawmakers dominate the House of Delegates’ Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, which has guarded the Second Amendment in Virginia for decades. Gun control supporters have another name for it: “The place where gun bills go to die.”

Phil Van Cleave, a pistol-toting man in his early 60s, who sat in his normal seat a few feet from the lawmakers, described the afternoon as “just another committee meeting.” He is used to winning.

For 20 years, Van Cleave has blocked nearly every attempt to tighten the state’s gun laws, with the help of a powerful grassroots lobby called the Virginia Citizens Defense League. As a trusted spokesman for Virginia’s nearly 300,000 concealed-weapon permit holders, members of the House gun committee turn to him for a nod of approval on most bills.

“It’s almost like he’s the Roman Emperor. He’ll give the thumbs up or thumbs down, then the word spreads quickly on the committee,” said Delegate Marcus Simon, a Democratic committee member from the Washington, D.C., suburbs. “It’s hard to deny he gets a vote.”

Share this story

  • The clash over gun control and gun rights flares up in Virginia #GunWars
  • How should guns be regulated? Virginia lawmakers and lobbyists debate the answers #GunWars
Give us your feedback

Van Cleave successfully fought off new gun laws in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, the deadliest in U.S. history. Instead, he and the Virginia Citizens Defense League shaped laws that poured $42 million into mental health support. Virginia’s mental health system was scrutinized after state officials learned that warning signs of Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho’s violent behavior had been missed.

Gun control advocates had higher expectations in 2014. For the first time in 24 years, Democrats controlled the top statewide offices, as well as the Senate. Gov. Terry McAuliffe — whose campaign was buoyed by $2 million from gun control advocates — proudly touted his “F” rating from the National Rifle Association and boldly called for universal background checks in his stump speeches.

By the end of the session, no gun control bills survived and Virginia’s reputation was affirmed as one of the most gun-friendly legislatures in the country.

Again, Van Cleave was not surprised.

“They know their legislation doesn’t stand a chance,” he said. “They haven’t gotten anything done in a decade.”

Virginia Citizens Defense League lobbyist Philip Van Cleave carries his firearm in the state Capitol in Richmond on July 2, 2014. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News 21.

‘The killing field’

Within the House of Delegates, most members of the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee are unbending supporters of Second Amendment rights.

They have fought for the gun rights of individuals convicted of domestic abuse as well as those committed to mental hospitals, said another Democrat on the committee, Alfonso Lopez.

“It’s like talking to a brick wall a lot of the time,” Lopez said. Sometimes, he said, the views of his GOP colleagues are so hard-lined that Democrats do not try to compromise on their bills. It’s simpler to just vote no.

“It’s the killing field. It is the key obstacle,” said Lori Haas, who began working for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence after her daughter survived the shooting at Virginia Tech, where she was shot twice in the head.

Haas, and gun control proponents nationwide, argue Virginia’s laws are dangerously lax compared to dozens of other states. A 2012 report from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said the state’s weak laws “help feed the illegal gun market, allow the sale of guns without background checks and put children at risk.”

In a state that news outlets have called the East Coast armory of criminals, gun rights advocates have earned a slew of major victories recently. In 2010, Virginia began letting permit holders bring loaded guns into restaurants that serve alcohol. Two years later, the state repealed a 19-year-old ban on purchasing more than one handgun per month.

About a month after the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a group of Democratic lawmakers tried to push Virginia in the other direction. Standing on the steps of the Capitol early in 2013, lawmakers outlined a plan to toughen laws on gun ownership: Universal background checks, more scrutiny of mental health records, no guns for individuals convicted of stalking or sexual battery.

Lopez, who served in Gov. Tim Kaine’s cabinet in 2007 and helped manage the fallout of the Virginia Tech shooting, said he felt compelled to take action after Newtown. His son was then 7 years old, the same age as many of the victims.

But when one of the highest-ranking Republicans took to the floor of the House shortly after and warned fellow lawmakers not to touch the Second Amendment, clearly the political climate hadn’t changed.

After the remarks, Lopez remembers one of his newly elected Democratic colleagues turning to him for an explanation.

“Seriously?” the lawmaker demanded. Lopez leaned back in his chair and replied, “Dude, welcome to the House of Delegates.”

More blue voters in the state

Six years after the shooting that nearly killed her daughter and left 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus dead, Haas said the campaign for gun control is gaining ground, and the demographics are on her side.

It’s a slow shift, but the once deep-red state is moving towards blue.

Since 1980, the number of Virginians who lived in rural areas dropped from 34 percent of the state population to just under one-quarter in 2010. Over that same time, the percentage of white Virginians declined from 79 percent to 69 percent.

The fastest-growing parts of the state tend to vote Democratic. Northern Virginia has been home to half of the state’s new residents over the last decade — a period during which the state elected two Democratic senators and two Democratic governors, and twice voted for a Democratic president.

Simon, the delegate who represents a rapidly diversifying area of northern Virginia, said he’s noticed minority groups sometimes “understand the issue of gun violence differently” because they have lived in urban areas where crime is more common.

He said more rural areas of Virginia don’t have the same problems.

“You can leave your gun rack in your truck and you’re not worried about it,” he said about smaller towns that make up southern Virginia. “Everybody has their own guns so you don’t have to worry. They don’t get what all the fuss is here.”

McAuliffe, the governor who was elected in the Democratic wave of 2012 with the help of gun control fundraising, has taken small steps on the issue. He and his wife attended the Democratic lawmakers’ rally after Newtown. In his first veto as governor, he tried to amend a minor gun bill to require that firearms kept in vehicles be locked at all times. The Legislature rejected his amendment.

Haas said the governor as well as his chief of staff and secretary of public safety have worked hard with her on the gun issue, but admitted “the political realities are difficult.”

She said Virginia is a vastly different place than its neighbor Maryland, which passed an extensive gun control law in 2013 after fierce grassroots lobbying. She said too much power is still held by lawmakers from the “very, very, very rural parts of Virginia.”

“Things are changing. Those politics have to trickle down. It just takes a little time. It’s not that it’s not happening,” Haas said. “We will move the ball on the issues.”

Gina Reader, a Richmond resident who recently became the state leader of Moms Demand Action, said McAuliffe acts as a “firewall of protection” against a further loosening of gun laws. Most of her 400-member organization became involved after the Newtown shooting.

She said McAuliffe’s ability to pull in funds from national gun control groups can be key in battling long-established, well-funded organizations like the state’s Citizens Defense League and the NRA.

Of the $1 million that Virginia gun groups have given to candidates and committees since 1989, just $72,395 came from gun control groups, according to an analysis of campaign contribution data by the Sunlight Foundation.

“You have the gun lobby, who has an interest in making money by changing these laws. On the other side, there’s no money. There’s no money in safety. There’s no money in having fewer people have guns,” Reader said.

Pro-gun advocates who argue that their clout is growing, not shrinking cite their own set of numbers.

The number of firearm sales rose more than 100 percent between 2006 and 2012 while gun crime dropped 28 percent. The number of concealed weapon permit holders also doubled over that time, now reaching almost 300,000. Membership is booming, with 20,000 people now subscribed to the Virginia Citizens Defense League email chain.

Van Cleave, who is also a certified NRA instructor, said he’s also noticed the changing demographics in shooting ranges across Virginia. He said he’s seen more young people particularly women “waking up to their rights.”

When training first-time gun users, he said he loves seeing their eyes light up when they take their first shot. But he said there are some people who will never want to go near guns. An unloaded firearm sitting a few feet away on a table is enough to scare them.

“There are people who will literally start to shake. They’re truly afraid that that thing could go off. It’s ignorance, mostly. Some of it is just fear,” he said. “There will always be that gap. There are people who are just afraid of guns like people are afraid of snakes.”

Virginia Citizens Defense League lobbyist Philip Van Cleave poses for a portrait in front of the state Capitol in Richmond on July 2, 2014. The grassroots organization helped block gun control laws in the state after the Virginia Tech shooting, the deadliest shooting in U.S. history. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News 21.

Armed resistance

Van Cleave, a software developer who wears button-up shirts and slacks, stands out from the crowd of Second Amendment supporters, many of whom frequently don Revolutionary War garb for hearings. But he is just as firm in his stance as the boisterous gun-carrying crowds that show up at the statehouse for every major gun bill.

He learned to shoot as a kid growing up in Illinois. Nearly 50 years later, Van Cleave keeps his affinity for guns. He settled in Virginia, in part, because of its support of the Second Amendment, and spends nearly every weekend at the country’s largest indoor range, Colonial Shooting Academy.

Van Cleave said he’s never had to use his gun for protection. But he’s nearly always armed, just in case. In the bedroom where he and his wife sleep in a suburb just outside of Richmond, Van Cleave keeps a safe that can read his fingerprint and unlock his gun in less than two seconds.

When explaining the case for self-defense, Van Cleave talks about the six years he spent as a deputy sheriff along the Texas border in his 20s. He tells stories about a grandmother-aged woman who used a gun to protect herself, but also the “sad times” when he got there too late.

Once, he stared into the eyes of a man who had just murdered a random stranger in front of his wife.

“When you looked in his eyes, it was like looking at a snake. It didn’t have a soul,” he said. He realized then that no law could have prevented the man from pulling the trigger then — or any other time.

He said if someone is determined, he or she will commit a crime regardless of the laws on the books. Van Cleave pointed to the shooters at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary School and near the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho showed years of warning signs, but “fell through the cracks,” he said. Newtown killer Adam Lanza had stolen the guns he used from his mother, and theft was already against the law. Elliott Roger sailed through background checks in California, despite facing some of the nation’s toughest restrictions.

“If you’re counting on the government stopping every single bad guy from getting a gun, you’re in fantasyland,” Van Cleave said. “By restricting gun rights, you’re only increasing the odds of the horrible thing that happened before of happening again, and this time without resistance.”

Back in 2013, Van Cleave and his fellow gun rights advocates successfully stopped the Democrats’ post-Newtown push for tougher laws. The only piece of gun legislation that passed ensured that the state could not create a registry of people with concealed carry permits.

Virginia state Sen. Bill Carrico, who led the effort to repeal the state’s one-gun-a-month rule in 2012 when he was in the House and on the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, also believes that the state’s approach to stopping gun violence must be based on personal defense.

As a former state trooper who was in charge of overseeing 480 square miles of Virginia countryside, Carrico said he has seen that law enforcement cannot be a person’s only form of protection.

“An individual could be killed or seriously injured before you get there,” Carrico said. “The question here is, are you safer if you’re able to defend yourself against attacks such as the one Cho committed, or are you vulnerable by more laws restricting you from having a firearm?”

Give us your thoughts on this report

We want to hear from you.
  • Sarah Ferris headshot

    Sarah Ferris

    Sarah Ferris graduated from the George Washington University with a degree in political science and journalism.

Republish our work; it's all Creative Commons.