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Gun Shy

The renewed debate about gun control highlights a new paradigm: The Democrats, it turns out, are packing heat.

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Under fire from pro-gun advocates and government watchdogs, then-Richmond Mayor Timothy Kaine stood his ground.

A vocal supporter of the anti-gun lobby, Kaine in 2000 approved roughly $9,000 in city tax dollars to send chartered buses from Richmond to Washington, D.C., for the Million Mom March, a massive anti-gun rally.

What a difference seven years makes. Under pressure to tighten state gun laws in the wake of the April 16 tragedy at Virginia Tech, Gov. Kaine had harsh words for gun-control advocates. Those who wanted to use the tragic event to "politicize" gun control and "make it into their political hobbyhorse to ride — I've got nothing but loathing for them," Kaine scoffed. "They can take that elsewhere."

Kaine, a Democrat, was not alone in his refusal to turn Tech into fuel for gun-control legislation. Democrats from the statehouse to Congress responded to it primarily as a mental-health issue, a move that spotlights a shift in the party's position.

When Bill Clinton was president, favoring stricter gun laws was a defining party issue. In Richmond, programs such as Project Exile and the one-gun-a-month law were celebrated as Democratic victories. Now, Virginia Senator Jim Webb, also a Democrat, holds press conferences in the lobby of the U.S. Capitol defending his right to bear arms.

"The Democrats nationally and in Virginia began getting the electoral message about gun control in 1994," according to Dr. Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"One reason for the GOP congressional landslide was a strong anti-gun-control rural vote that swept many incumbent Democrats from office," Sabato says. "Then Al Gore's loss in 2000 underlined the message. Gun control almost certainly cost Gore his native Tennessee, as well as West Virginia and Florida. … Even one of these states would have elected Gore."

To stem the tide, Democrats largely abandoned the anti-gun lobby.

"You can argue about the policy," Sabato says, "but as politics this is very smart for the Democrats."

A certain amount of political calculus is afoot, but one of Richmond's home-grown crime initiatives from the late 1990s figures in too and set off a change on the policy side.

Former Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks launched Project Exile in 1997. It aimed to give tougher sentences to people who were caught with illegal guns by using laws that were already on the books, a focus palatable enough to garner support from both the National Rifle Association and The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. States and cities across the country replicated the program.

The idea was to prosecute in federal court people charged with illegal gun possession. This carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. Those convictions "exiled" local offenders from Richmond to federal prisons much farther away in hopes of breaking up potential gangs in jail and of lessening the fear of retribution among community members who provided police with information.

It provided a politically neutral middle ground, which allowed politicians from both parties to work on the issue and avoid rankling core constituents. It also gave Democrats the political cover they needed when conservatives took over Congress and, for the first time since Reconstruction, the Virginia General Assembly.

"In recent years Project Exile has been the single most coordinated [law-]enforcement effort, and it began in Richmond," says Jay Albanese, a criminal justice professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"It was a good experiment to see the extent to which a major prosecution effort with long sentences for criminals involved in gun crimes would have," Albanese says, although similar programs in other states have produced mixed results.

Politically, Project Exile worked because it connected the dots between gangs, crime and illegal guns. Albanese says Project Exile showed "that you could get national consensus around a program that involved criminals and guns. Others focused on owning guns no matter who you are."

The approach was distinct from the gun-control efforts that preceded it, Albanese says, such as the Brady Bill and President Clinton's ban on assault rifles.

As for the assault-rifle ban, he says, there tends to be a "substitution effect," meaning criminals will find one weapon to replace another. "If you're a criminal carrying a gun, I could ask you why you're carrying a .22 caliber instead of a .45 instead of a sawed-off shotgun, and you'll probably tell me whatever you're carrying was the easiest to get and the cheapest."

Many pundits say the assault-rifle ban cost Clinton dearly when the House of Representatives returned to Republican control in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.

The Brady Bill, which passed in 1993, extended the mandatory wait period and background check required before purchasing a gun. It's been significantly weakened since then, and the assault-rifle ban expired in 2004, despite Virginia's senior Republican senator, John Warner, sponsoring a bill extending the ban for another decade.

The Project Exile approach — going after criminals instead of gun owners — helped realign traditional adversaries in the gun-control argument, Albanese says. Perhaps no one cashed in on that new political capital more dramatically than Mark Warner during his 2001 run for governor.

Warner cultivated a public persona as a New Democrat who embraced gun rights. On the campaign trail he was seen shooting turkeys in Lunenburg County and erected "Sportsmen for Warner" signs throughout the state. He cemented his image after taking office with an appearance shooting geese on ESPN.

The biggest coup of his campaign, however, was to convince the NRA not to endorse his Republican opponent, then-Attorney General Mark Earley, cutting loose an army of single-issue voters to explore other facets of the campaign, which ultimately helped deliver Warner a win.

Warner gave Democrats the blueprint for winning "red" Virginia by gaining credibility through his commitment to gun owners' rights. Democrats now enjoy a majority in the U.S. Senate with such figures as former Marine Jim Webb and Montana's John Tester cutting tougher figures and embracing gun rights.

"[Warner] went around and said that he was going to leave Virginia gun laws as is. The Warner race also convinced some Democrats that there's an answer on this issue, which is to avoid it," says Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way.

This Washington, D.C.-based think tank, which advocates "progressive" policies, liked Project Exile and hopes prosecutors will push further on the enforcement end, going after gun traffickers and corrupt gun shops, effectively enlarging that bipartisan, criminal-targeting, enforce-what's-on-the-books territory.

But as the Tech tragedy highlights, such "common ground" isn't a fail-safe.

"Prosecuting criminals is one aspect of crime control, but clearly there are others, because prosecuting criminals is going after people after they've done damage," Albanese says. "We keep producing significant numbers of criminals with or without guns. It's like saying having better cleanup crews is going to solve the littering problem. Well, no it's not. It'll certainly make our highways look better, but it won't stop the problem." S

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