Jeanette Richardson was at a Newport News neighbor’s house for a 2004 New Year’s Eve party when she heard gunshots.
She returned home to find her 18-year-old son, Patrick Wyatt McKinley, had been fatally shot in the street. The gunman had been attending a party elsewhere in the neighborhood, and neither she nor her son knew him. But he attacked her son, home on break from college in Florida, after the teen asked one of the gunman’s friends to move his car from in front of their house.
The randomness of the crime and the pain of losing a child who just weeks before had asked her to watch the documentary “Bowling for Columbine” – about the 2002 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado – turned Richardson into a gun-control advocate overnight.
Like for many in Hampton Roads where gun violence is common, gun control is pivotal for her in the June 13 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
“When you can mow down 50 people in one room in minutes, or 32 people in college, and 26 children and teachers, it’s a public safety issue,” she said.
“It just makes no sense. We need to hear from the candidates. It is a growing issue. It’s time to take a stand against the NRA.”
The issue will be highlighted when the two Democrats vying for their party’s nomination appear Sunday at a forum on gun violence prevention in all-important northern Virginia, where the lion’s share of voters live.
The Alexandria forum will be hosted by Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC. It could be closely monitored by Republicans looking for political ammunition ahead of November’s general election, where gun control is likely to be a topic that puts the state’s partisan divide on full display.
Republicans have termed the Democratic primary a “Race to the Left” ever since former Rep. Tom Perriello unexpectedly entered the campaign in January to challenge Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who had already locked up the support of most of the state’s party establishment but has faced a competitive race ever since. A Washington Post poll released Thursday showed that 40 percent of likely Democratic voters support Perriello, while 38 percent support Northam.
Political observers outside Virginia are looking to the state as a potential early referendum on Republican President Donald Trump and the direction the Democratic party will take in the future. Gun control within the state is emerging as an important consideration for both parties, with the Democratic candidates calling for “commonsense” gun laws and the Republicans touting their Second Amendment credentials.
The timing of the Democratic forum comes days after Northam, who grew up on the Eastern Shore and lives in Norfolk, began airing a commercial that features the mother of a victim who was wounded during the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings that killed 32.
The commercial touts Northam’s support for expanded background checks in opposition to the politically powerful National Rifle Association. In airing the ad, Northam is subtly seeking to differentiate himself from Perriello of Charlottesville.
Perriello was a one-term congressman who represented a conservative-leaning district and while in office accepted money from the NRA, opposed reinstating an assault-weapons ban and supported creating a national standard for concealed-weapons permits. His efforts earned him an “A” rating from the NRA at the time.
Perriello, like Northam, now carries an “F” rating from the gun-rights group, and the candidates’ platforms are remarkably similar. They include an assault-weapons ban, universal background checks and reinstating Virginia’s limit on handgun sales to one a month. Perriello says he’s changed since he was in Congress and that Northam’s history isn’t ideal, either.
“He’s the only candidate in this primary who has cast votes with the NRA for gun laws that are still on the books that make our communities less safe, and I think that’s very concerning when he’s stood with the NRA against communities being able to ensure fingerprinting for conceal-carry permits and support gun buyback programs that would bring illegal guns off of our streets,” Perriello said Tuesday following a debate in Norfolk where gun control came up.
“Ultimately, neither of us have a perfect record. But I think going forward both of us are committed to ensuring safe communities consistent with our heritage.”
Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel fired back, contrasting the Democratic candidates’ records following the Virginia Tech massacre.
“Even more telling is that when a bill to close the gun show loophole was on the table, cosponsored by over 100 Democrats, Perriello passed the buck there too. That same year, after listening to parents of Virginia Tech students, Ralph Northam voted to close the gun show loophole and he has the ‘D’ rating to show for it,” she wrote in an email.
“It’s unclear why Tom wasn’t supportive of gun safety reforms after a tragedy struck Virginia.”
Richardson said Northam’s record on gun control outperforms Perriello’s – and that’s enough to earn her vote.
“He’s a straight shooter. Northam has never wavered,” she said. “Perriello has kind of gotten off in different directions. I would not trust him.”
Regardless of who wins the nomination June 13, Northam or Perriello will face an opponent with an “A” rating from the NRA – all three GOP candidates received that grade this year.
On the Republican side, Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart has knocked political strategist and front-runner Ed Gillespie on the issue.
In a broad-ranging speech bashing “establishment Republicans” that was broadcast on Facebook Live earlier this week, Stewart accused Gillespie of not being willing to stand up for the Second Amendment, without specifying what he meant. Stewart drew headlines early in the race this winter when he held a drawing and gave away an AR-15 military-style weapon – which Democrats like Northam and Perriello want to ban the sale of – to a supporter.
Stewart favors eliminating permit requirements for someone to carry a concealed weapon, which is frequently referred to as “constitutional carry” in other states that have adopted that policy. He’s criticized Gillespie for not taking a stand on the issue, although Gillespie’s campaign said in an email that Gillespie would sign a bill that would allow law-abiding Virginians to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
Gillespie also has vowed to repeal any executive orders by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe that he believes target gun owners, such as a 2015 order banning carrying firearms openly in most state buildings.
Wagner, a state senator from Virginia Beach, paints himself as an ardent defender of the Second Amendment. A campaign video features him at a shooting range firing a pistol and notes he’s a hunter whom the NRA has endorsed in 10 previous elections.
“As your governor, I will continue to protect the right of our citizens to keep and bear arms uninfringed by any government action,” Wagner says in the video.