Challengers to Barbara Comstock united on gun control

June 11, 2018 GMT

The six candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in the race against Rep. Barbara Comstock in Virginia disagree on quite a bit about the direction of their party, but they are unified on one key issue gun control.

Where in the past Virginia Democrats would try to defuse the issue or even fight for support from the National Rifle Association, in the post-Parkland world the six candidates say the only path forward is expanded background checks and bans on sales of some types of rifles.

One candidate, Julia Biggins, is even calling for an Australian-style gun buyback scheme to reduce the number of semiautomatic weapons in Americans’ hands.

“Every time I mention it, people think it is a good solution to getting those guns off the street,” Ms. Biggins said. “It’s people deciding, ‘Hey, I don’t need this assault weapon in my house; I’d like to turn it in,’ because they understand the importance of this.”


State Sen. Jennifer Wexton, the perceived front-runner in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, has named guns as one of the most important issues for voters and has won the endorsement of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

“As a state senator, I have passed more than 40 pieces of bipartisan legislation, while supporting important progressive causes like reducing gun violence, expanding access to health care, and protecting our environment,” she said.

And for Alison Friedman who says that a top goal for her in Congress would be to secure an “F” rating from the NRA and that Ms. Comstock “sold our kids’ safety” to the gun-rights group it was her daughter’s association between President Trump and guns that helped push her into the race in the first place.

As part of a homework assignment, the girl wrote a letter asking the president not to “build a wall in the world.” When Ms. Friedman tried to take a photo of the letter, though, her daughter refused, saying, “What if the president found out I wrote it and brings his guns to our house?’”

“I said, ‘He can’t do that,’” Ms. Friedman recalled. “I said the rules in the government are called laws, and one of the most important laws in our country is that you can express your opinion even if the people in power disagree.”

They’re seeking to unseat Ms. Comstock, a Republican in her second term in office in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District. Stretching from the affluent outer suburbs of the District to the West Virginia line, it’s an area where gun control increasingly plays well, said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News.

“If you had sort of a daily tracker on gun control in the 10th over the last decade, you would see a shift in favor of gun control,” he said.


Ms. Comstock, who won re-election by 6 percentage points in 2016 as Mr. Trump lost by 10 points to Hillary Clinton in the district, has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association in the past. In a campaign mailer, she touts her work “protecting the Second Amendment,” as well as her “A” rating from the NRA.

But as Virginia trends blue, that could be a problem. Democrats’ posturing on guns in her district is part of a national approach, which has gotten a boost in the wake of shootings such as the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“It’s almost like a litmus test for Democratic candidates nowadays,” Mr. Kidd said. “I don’t see Democrats run as pro-gun rights Democrats like you would always see historically in Virginia. You just don’t see that anymore. So that’s how powerful the gun control forces have become in Virginia.”

Both Ms. Friedman and Army veteran Daniel Heller, another candidate, have actually criticized Ms. Wexton as being too soft on guns. They point to her support for a compromise package in the state legislature that recognized out-of-state concealed carry permits from states with looser gun laws than Virginia’s as it also stiffened penalties for domestic abusers found with guns and introduced voluntary background checks for sales at private gun shows.

Mr. Helmer said at an April forum that the deal was a “gift to the NRA,” while Ms. Wexton pushed back, calling it a “bipartisan, historic” package.

“It’s easy to sit in judgment when you’re sitting on the sidelines and not having to be down in the trenches,” she said.

For his part, Mr. Helmer also released an undercover video earlier this year in which he bought a semiautomatic firearm at a private gun show in the state to try to illustrate how easy it is to get one.

Paul Pelletier, a former federal prosecutor, has stressed the need to investigate the NRA’s ties to Russia as part of his congressional campaign, even sending a criminal referral to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Lindsey Davis Stover, who worked in the Department of Veterans Affairs during the Obama administration, has touted the endorsement of the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, a dual gay rights-gun control advocacy group that also has endorsed Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine for re-election.

Still, gun-rights advocates say the issue is a motivating one for their side even in a bellwether district like the 10th and in a state like Virginia that has been trending more Democratic over the last decade.

Shak Hill, who is challenging Mrs. Comstock in a GOP primary Tuesday, said gun rights is a winning issue for Republicans.

He said concerns for public safety can be balanced with discussions about mental illness “and making sure we talk about solutions and not knee-jerk to violating our constitutional rights.”

“It’s a winning issue,” Mr. Hill said. “Making sure that we have public safety and making sure we’re following the rule of law is always a winning issue, no matter who’s the one that’s championing it.”

E.W. Jackson, who is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate on Tuesday, said he doesn’t think either side can claim the issue as a “clear winner” politically at the moment, but that voters can be swayed by clear, rationale arguments in favor of Second Amendment rights.

“I think that if we can speak to it in human terms and tell some of the stories of lives that have been saved by people who were trained and armed and capable of responding in an emergency situation, I think we can persuade a lot of voters,” Mr. Jackson said.