By Tyler Woodall and Nick Versaw
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – The 2016 presidential election was one of the most polarizing election cycles in recent memory, as people on both sides of the aisle expressed distaste for the opposing party’s candidate and hot-button issues rose to the front of the United States’ collective political mind.
With tragedies like the Sandy Hook, Pulse nightclub and San Bernardino shootings littering the past several years, firearms generated particularly strong emotions.
According to the Pew Research Center, gun policy was among the five most important issues to the American populace during last year’s election – more important to voters than even immigration, Social Security and education.
However, while guns remained a hot-button issue among Americans, there were some topics that supporters of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were able to agree upon.
For example, according to Pew, at least 75 percent of both candidates’ supporters agreed on mandated background checks at gun shows. At least 82 percent of each group also saw eye to eye when it came to restrictions on gun ownership for people with mental illness.
Even so, voters remained sharply divided over many other gun-related issues.
Nearly 75 percent of Clinton supporters endorsed restrictions on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, while only 34 percent of Trump supporters shared that viewpoint.
The distance between the two parties on guns has increased dramatically in recent years. According to Pew, there was a 20 percentage-point difference between the supporters of Al Gore and George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race when it came to controlling gun ownership versus protecting gun rights. That gap more than doubled to 41 points in the 2012 race and ballooned to a 70-point difference between Trump and Clinton supporters last year.
The country’s overall viewpoint on gun rights has flipped since the 2000 election. That year, 66 percent of voters supported restricting gun rights, with only 29 percent looking to protect gun ownership. By 2016, those figures had reversed, with more than half of voters supporting gun ownership.
In addition, Pew found that a majority of the public believes that gun ownership in the United States does more to protect citizens from being a victim of crimes. A little over a third of Americans think guns put the public in greater danger.
These trends have led to a flood of gun-related legislation at both the state and federal levels.
In Virginia, 111 weapons-related bills were introduced to the General Assembly in 2016 – a 170 percent increase over the previous year. Of those bills, only 14 were signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.
During his four-year term as governor, McAuliffe witnessed this increase in gun legislation first-hand. McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican Bob McDonnell, saw 171 weapons-related bills introduced during his time as governor. McAuliffe has seen 300.
With the 2017 governor’s race heating up, the state’s gun policy hangs in the balance. With a Republican-led General Assembly, a GOP gubernatorial win in November could lead to an expansion of gun rights over the next four years.
Even if a Democrat is elected governor, the trends indicate gun regulation will remain at the forefront of the local and national political landscape.