Here's Why Ralph Northam Can't Win His Gun Fight

Over at National Review, I have a new piece on why Ralph Northam and Virginia Democrats are making a huge tactical mistake by pursuing restrictions on the state’s legal gun owners instead of targeting violent crime and mental health in the 2020 legislative session. Go read the whole piece, because I don’t want to quote too much of the column here. I do, however, want to elaborate on one reason why I believe the push for gun control is bound to be a losing issue for the governor and his allies in the legislature.

Before Ralph Northam goes too far down this dead-end road of gun control, he should look at what’s happened in a few other states that have passed state-level gun-control laws in recent years. In New York, there’s been massive noncompliance with the laws, and the vast majority of prosecutions under the state’s SAFE Act, which restricts firearm rights, are taking place in just two of New York City’s five boroughs: the Bronx and Brooklyn. A large majority of defendants are young black men without serious criminal histories, who are facing years in prison for non-violent possessory offenses. As Slate’s Emily Jaffe wrote, the War on Drugs is being replaced by the War on Guns, but it’s still young minority men who are disproportionately impacted.

That will absolutely be the case with any gun-control laws that Northam may sign. The vast majority of enforcement will be in the Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk/Virginia Beach, and Roanoke areas, with northern Virginia coming up close behind. The vast majority of charges will be for non-violent possessory offenses, the vast majority of defendants will be young black and Hispanic men from Virginia’s inner cities, and the vast majority of those defendants will not have any serious criminal history, though they may be heading down that road.

Instead of offering these individuals a way out, however, Ralph Northam wants to give them a crash course in criminality by putting them in prison.

Ralph Northam and his fellow Democrats are portraying themselves as champions of criminal justice reform and civil rights at the moment, when the truth is the gun control bills they’re determined to pass would restrict the civil rights of Virginians.

While Northam is restoring some civil rights (not the right to keep and bear arms, it’s worth noting) for a few thousand convicts, he’s eagerly attempting to restrict the civil rights of law-abiding Virginians. As the VCDL and GOA recently noted, the governor’s new budget proposal is seeking millions of dollars to fund 28 new positions within the Virginia State Police that would be tasked specifically with enforcing his proposed gun laws. From page 23 of the report.

Where do you think those 28 new employees are going to be devoting most of their time and energy? Do you think they’ll be focusing on low-crime rural counties in Virginia, or in high-crime cities like Petersburg, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Richmond? As much as Northam and his fellow Democrats might want to turn these employees loose in places like Tazewell County, the odds are that they’re going to be spending most of their time in deep-blue Democrat strongholds, and most of their efforts are going to be directed against young men of color.

Northam’s been trying very hard to rehabilitate his image in the wake of his blackface scandal, but what he’s about to do to young black men in Virginia is going to be far worse than donning blackface (or was it a Klan hood?) during his time in medical school. Rural conservatives and suburban gun owners aren’t the only ones who should be objecting to his new gun control bills. Urban Democrats who actually care about making their communities safer places should be just as vociferous in their opposition because most of the enforcement efforts are going to fall on young men in their cities.

As I say in my piece at National Review, Ralph Northam can put these gun laws on the books, but that’s going to be the easy part for him. Enforcing these laws is going to quickly become Northam’s political Vietnam; a quagmire from which there is no real way of winning and no easy way to back down. His efforts will mobilize Virginia gun owners during an election year (it’s worth noting that new poll of Virginia voters has some pretty good numbers for President Trump), inspire civil and civic disobedience, put more young black men in prison for non-violent crimes, and likely won’t reduce violent crime at all. Over at National Review, I offer Northam another way forward. I hope he takes it, though I’m not optimistic. Ralph Northam can’t win his gun fight, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t tough times ahead for Virginians.