Youngkin could always veto those bills and Democrats, with slim majorities in both chambers, would lack the numbers to override him. Some Democrats say that outcome would at least pin Youngkin down on a thorny issue that he mostly sidestepped on his way to the Executive Mansion.
“He’s going to have to decide if he’s truly a suburban dad in a vest who cares about children and public safety or he cares more about the right-wing base,” said state Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who has a bill ready to file to ban the carrying of certain semiautomatic weapons in public.
But Youngkin has been so reticent on the subject that some Democrats hope — and some gun-rights activists fear — that he might be open to some restrictions.
“He’s been untested. He doesn’t speak about it much. We’re in the dark,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights group. “I have no reason to think that he wouldn’t veto them, but I don’t have any kind of 100 percent surety that some bills wouldn’t potentially be signed.”
“The governor will review any legislation when it comes to his desk,” Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez said.
Youngkin was vocal about gun rights when he was seeking his party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2021, vowing to roll back a host of gun-control laws passed the year before, when Democrats enjoyed control of the governorship and both chambers. But he also avoided getting pinned down on specifics by not answering surveys from the VCDL and the National Rifle Association — a first in recent memory for a successful statewide GOP nominee.
He downplayed the issue after winning the nomination, as he sought to appeal to critical suburban swing voters, typically voicing support only for unspecified “constitutional rights.”
Since taking office, Youngkin has said little on guns, even when pressed to address the issue after high-profile shootings in the state, including a mass killing that killed six at a Chesapeake Walmart in November 2022, 10 days after three students were shot dead at the University of Virginia.
After a 6-year-old shot and wounded his teacher in Newport News in January, House Republicans called for greater school discipline and Democrats sought to restrict access to guns. Youngkin’s response: “This investigation is ongoing. It’s heart-wrenching and the results of which aren’t fully known yet. I applaud the leadership in Newport News.”
“There’s little on the record from Youngkin on the issue of gun violence,” said Lori Haas, one of Richmond’s most prominent gun-control advocates since her daughter was injured in the 2007 mass killing at Virginia Tech. “We will learn a lot when these bills go to his desk and learn whether he truly cares about the citizens for the commonwealth.”
Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Charlottesville) and Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax) have filed identical bills that would ban the sale, transfer and possession of assault-style weapons, though with a provision to exempt those already in private hands. The bills would raise the age for possessing assault weapons, regardless of when they were made, from 18 to 21. They also would prohibit the sale of large-capacity magazines.
A handful of Senate Democrats, Deeds among them, scuttled efforts to ban assault-style weapons in February 2020, nine months after a shooter killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building. Opponents said they were concerned about the prospect of forcing gun-owners to give up weapons they had lawfully purchased. Deeds said that issue has been resolved in the new legislation by grandfathering existing weapons, expressing confidence that measures will clear both chambers this time.
“We’ll just have to have a conversation with the governor,” he said. “And I’m ready to do that.”
Helmer, who served as a U.S. Army intelligence officer overseas, said he hoped Youngkin embraces the legislation as a way to enhance public safety.
“It is my hope that the governor is serious when he talks about keeping our communities safe, and the way to keep our communities safe is to make sure our children don’t die in massacres at our schools perpetuated by extremists carrying weapons similar to those I carried in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Helmer said.
Taylor McKee, Virginia state director for the National Rifle Association, took a dim view of the bills.
“The term ‘assault weapon’ is a term contrived by the gun control lobby to demonize widely owned semiautomatic rifles, which are used for a variety of lawful purposes including self-defense,” he said in an email to The Washington Post. “A government-mandated study following the 1994 federal ‘assault weapons’ ban found that these firearms are rarely used by criminals and therefore had no impact on crime.”