In Virginia, before the National Rifle Association was a Republican front, it was a Democratic front.
It routinely supported Democrats, some of whom are now among its toughest critics.
That includes Dick Saslaw, the state Senate minority leader. He’s known to shoot from the lip when it comes to individuals, ideas and interest groups that make him meshugah.
Saslaw remembers his first campaign for the Senate in 1979, running with the NRA’s endorsement and financial support: a whopping $25 contribution, he said. It was the last time Saslaw and the gun-rights group were on the same side.
Long before it was beset by financial and managerial turmoil, the Virginia-based NRA backed Virginia Democrats because of General Assembly arithmetic: Democrats controlled the House of Delegates and the state Senate. Support for gun rights was an article of faith among many Democrats ‘ and not just those from the conservative side.
Until Republicans completed their takeover of the legislature in 1999, the man to see for an NRA endorsement was the late Vic Thomas, a Democratic delegate from Roanoke, a blue-collar city in the Blue Ridge. He wasn’t even a member of the organization.
That was intentional.
Low-key to the point of somnolent, Thomas wanted to be seen as an advocate for gun rights because he believed in them, not because the NRA—dependent on dues paid by its members—had a financial stake in preserving them.
Thomas, a grocer who kept a poster-sized photograph of President John F. Kennedy in his windowless office and annually organized an exotic game dinner for legislators and lobbyists, distributed and vetted the questionnaires with which the NRA graded incumbents and challengers—Democrats and Republicans.
If Democrats didn’t get high marks—sometimes because they had improperly filled out those questionnaires—Thomas would grouse to aides, one of whom in the 1970s was a fellow Roanoker who would become the face of the NRA: Wayne LaPierre.
Voting records also were scrutinized. Inconsistencies could be politically fatal. Just ask Bob McDonnell.
As a delegate from Virginia Beach who came to Richmond strong on guns, God and restricting gays, McDonnell got crosswise with the NRA for supporting the one-handgun-a-month law won by Gov. Doug Wilder in 1993.
It was intended to control a torrent of firearms too easily purchased in Virginia and very quickly hauled up Interstate 95 to New York City, where they were sold on the streets and used in violent drug crimes.
McDonnell’s vote cost him the endorsement of the NRA in 2005, when he was the Republican nominee for attorney general and barely defeated the Democrat whom the group supported, state Sen. Creigh Deeds—because his was the reliable pro-gun record one would expect from a rural politician. And it included a “no” vote against the Wilder initiative. McDonnell did not risk running afoul of the NRA again.
Standing for governor in 2009—also against Deeds—McDonnell vowed to sign into law legislation junking the one-handgun-a-month law, if sent to him by the General Assembly. Its Republican majority happily obliged in 2012.
But personal tragedy for Deeds in 2013—the suicide by rifle fire of his bipolar son who had attacked him with a knife—spurred the senator to soften his support of gun rights.
Deeds joined Democrats in publically endorsing more than a half-dozen gun safety measures pressed by the Northam administration at the General Assembly’s special session.
It was made more so by the Republican majority’s refusal to consider any bills. Instead, lawmakers quit after 90 minutes until mid-November, for a lame-duck session that is likely to be similarly unproductive.
This carefully choreographed Republican exercise in legislative inertia will be a talking point for Democrats in the fast-approaching House and Senate elections. Post-Virginia Beach, even some Republicans wonder if that prohibition should be weakened. Tommy Norment, the Senate minority leader, was briefly among them—until the gun lobby complained.
Because, after all, it’s a Republican front.