In Gubernatorial Race, It's About Who's More Pro-Gun
Background Check Loophole Puts Fine Point on Policies
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009
Walking the jam-packed aisles of Virginia's biggest gun show, Richard Begay carried a .30-06 Sauer hunting rifle and a hand-lettered cardboard sign on his back asking $1,199.
Unlike the federally licensed firearms dealers at tables nearby, Begay, 72, an occasional seller, can peddle the slick-looking rifle legally without a background check to any interested adult he meets at the show in Chantilly. To him, it's his right. To others, it's a potential disaster.
"I ask for their name and ID," said Begay, a bus monitor for the Fairfax County public schools who visited the Nation's Gun Show at the Dulles Expo Center this past weekend. "I hold on to it in case something does happen so I can tell the police."
The question of how much to regulate the sale and possession of guns has always been a dividing line in Virginia political contests. This year's gubernatorial candidates -- former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell (R) and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D) -- both have extensive pro-gun records. But the campaign is unfolding at a turbulent and uncertain time in the nation's debate over guns. One unresolved issue in Virginia, where 36 percent of households have a firearm, is whether to close the so-called gun show loophole, which permits freelance sellers like Begay.
The issue gained momentum after the April 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, which left 33 dead, including the student gunman.
"Virginia is ground zero for this debate," said Alexander Howe, a spokesman for Americans United for Safe Streets. Legislation to require background checks for every transaction at a gun show is pending in Congress as both sides strive for the advantage.
President Obama's election triggered a surge in sales among gun buyers, who feared that he and a Democratic-led Congress would push for new regulations. Instead, gun owners have cheered moves by Congress to allow people to carry concealed weapons in national parks and to link voting rights for the District to looser gun regulations.
In Congress last week, gun control advocates narrowly defeated a bid to force states to honor concealed handgun permits issued by other states. Two of the Democrats who supported the proposal were Sens. Mark R. Warner and James Webb of Virginia.
Advocates on both sides of the gun rights debate are closely following the Virginia race and the candidates' stands on gun shows for signs of a shifting trend.
Gun control advocates say private sellers should perform the same background check on prospective buyers that is required of federally licensed firearms dealers. Since February 1994, when the Brady Act began requiring licensed dealers to run such checks, more than 1.2 million purchases have been stopped because the buyer was ineligible -- a point of pride among gun control advocates.
But gun owners counter that requiring background checks for all gun show sales is the first step toward mandatory checks anytime a gun changes hands -- whether a father wanted to pass on a .22-caliber rifle to his son or a member of a shooting club wanted to trade shotguns with a fellow member. They also say there is scant evidence that criminals get their guns from gun shows, citing Justice Department statistics that indicate only 0.7 percent of guns used in crimes were purchased at gun shows.
Until recently, Deeds, as a lawmaker from rural Bath County, had been a more staunch advocate of gun rights than McDonnell, whose career began in Virginia Beach. One of Deeds's signature pieces of legislation was a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing Virginians the right to hunt and fish. Deeds also secured the National Rifle Association's backing in the 2005 attorney general's race against McDonnell, who won by 360 votes.
Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, pointedly declined to endorse Deeds in that campaign because Deeds, as a delegate, had refused to support legislation limiting handgun purchases to no more than one per month -- a measure McDonnell backed.
But both candidates have gravitated closer to positions generally embraced by their party's base.
McDonnell, for example, now says he supports a repeal of the one-a-month law because computerized background checks and other advances make it unnecessary. In an interview last week, McDonnell also said he opposes further regulating gun shows because statistics show only a tiny number of guns used in crimes were obtained at gun shows.
"I'd say it's a little bit of a misnomer to call it a loophole," McDonnell said. "It's really an attempt to regulate private sales."
But McDonnell touted his work with Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) in closing a loophole that allowed the Virginia Tech shooter to evade a ban on transferring firearms to someone with serious mental illness.
"I'm very sympathetic to the victims at Virginia Tech," McDonnell said. "The problem that occurred at Virginia Tech had nothing to do with the gun show loophole."
Deeds, who owns several firearms and has hunted since he was a child, said he understands the importance of the Second Amendment and has no interest in working for broader gun controls except for the gun show loophole.
"For me, everything changed on April 16, 2007," Deeds said in an interview Sunday. "As a father, I felt just a need deep down in my soul to respond to their grief somehow."
During the 2008 and 2009 General Assembly sessions, Deeds voted to close the loophole, including a compromise that would have exempted antique firearms. That soured his chances with Steve and Annette Elliott, owners of C&E Gun Shows, which promoted the three-day gun show at the Dulles Expo Center.
The Elliotts said that requiring background checks for private sales at gun shows would wreck their business and lead to further regulation.
"First they register them, then they make more laws and then they take them away," said Annette Elliott, who got her start in the business when she was 7 years old by collecting tickets at the door of gun shows her father sponsored in the Roanoke area. She said that using the Virginia Tech tragedy as an argument for further restrictions makes no sense because the shooter did not obtain his weapons at a gun show.
"I absolutely sympathize with all those families," Annette Elliott said. "But I think they're trying to blame the gun for what this crazy person did."
Lori Haas, 51, disagrees. Her daughter survived the massacre, and she praised Deeds for his change of heart. Haas said none of the Virginia Tech families wants to drive gun shows out of business or require a father to obtain a background check on his son before handing down a weapon, but they believe requiring background checks is common sense.
"The focus of the families of Virginia Tech, given the magnitude of the tragedy, is the desire to make sure that that pain and suffering and grief is not foisted on anyone else," Haas said. "We suspect that the average seller at a gun show would be more than happy to ask the potential buyer to take the two minutes necessary to do a background check, knowing that that could save the life of their son or daughter, their father or their mother, their grocer or their convenience store clerk, their sheriff or their police officer or their fellow citizen."