The Virginia Election: A Little History on How Gun Owners Fought Back

Last week’s election in Virginia was a seismic event, or at least it’s being treated like one. In a shocking turn of fortune, Republicans stormed back to sweep all three statewide offices and regain the House of Delegates. Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, Lt. Governor-elect Winsome Sears, and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares are solidly pro-gun, as are the candidates for the Speakership in the House of Delegates. But why were those results so significant for gun owners?

Leaning Left

The Commonwealth has taken a decided step, some would say two or three, to the left since 2008. Democrats had maintained firm control of the three statewide offices (Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General) since 2013. No Republican had been elected to any of those offices since 2009. 2017 saw the Democrats make a strong run for control of the state legislature, the General Assembly—a feat they accomplished emphatically in 2019. Once solidly in the Republican camp, Virginia has gone for the Democratic presidential candidate every time since 2008. Joe Biden won the Commonwealth by ten points in 2020. Virginia’s last Republican in the US Senate retired in 2009. Virginia seemingly went from bright red, to purple, to seemingly deep blue in only twelve years.

The shift was primarily driven by the massive growth of the Washington suburbs in Northern Virginia. If you look at an electoral map of the state, you will see vast swaths of red, with smaller concentrations of blue in Northern Virginia (which many of us in other parts call “Occupied Virginia”), the state capital of Richmond, the Hampton Roads/Virginia Beach area, and a few smaller cities and counties scattered around. But most of those few counties and cities have a much higher population density. It’s a situation similar to states like Illinois and New York, where the massive urban and suburban areas dictate to the rest the population. It’s democratic for sure, but it’s a situation that’s causing increased friction in such states.

2021 Virginia election electoral map and 2A sanctuary map
The Virginia 2021 Electoral Map and Map of Second Amendment Sanctuaries Electoral map.

It was enough to make this ol’ boy consider running for the border.

The West Virginia border, that is, in search of a free state in which to live. I seemed to find myself behind enemy lines rather quickly. And small wonder. Democrat Governor Terry McAuliffe, who took office in 2014, was a Clinton machine politician who made no bones about his hostility to guns. His position was echoed and amplified by his successor, Ralph Northam, and the Attorney General, Mark Herring, who never missed an opportunity to add his legal opinion to any anti-gun initiative nationwide. It was Herring who unilaterally decided to severely curtail concealed carry reciprocity with other states, encouraged by then-Governor McAuliffe. Fortunately, the still-red General Assembly promptly responded by cutting funding for McAuliffe’s State Police security detail. McAuliffe, suddenly alarmed, forced Herring to back down. Funny how these folks react when it’s THEIR security on the chopping block, isn’t it?

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring billboard signs.
Attorney General Mark Herring was relentless in his assault on gun rights and served well as the villain for Virginia Citizens Defense League messaging.

With their sweeping victories in 2019, the Democrats controlled the Governor’s Mansion, the Lt. Governorship, the Attorney General’s office, and both houses of the General Assembly. They immediately launched an aggressive gun control agenda. Multiple gun control bills, including several proposed bans on semiautomatic rifles, were pre-filed within days of the election, two months before the new legislature would be seated. The most egregious of these
was the bill authored by Delegate Mark Levine, which seemingly featured every item on the gun controllers’ wish list short of outright confiscation. Never mind that Levine himself, when questioned, struggled to define what a semiautomatic rifle was. All this was cheered on by Northam, the new Governor-elect, and Herring, about to begin his new term. Democrats proclaimed loud and clear their belief that they had been elected with a “gun safety” mandate. It was national news, and all the usual gun control suspects trumpeted the revolution in the Old Dominion.

But then, something happened that the gun controllers didn’t expect.

The people pushed back. Hard. The motto on the state flag, Sic Semper Tyrannis, (Thus Always to Tyrants) became a rallying cry for suddenly awakened gun owners. Within weeks of the 2019 election, localities across the state began declaring themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries.”

Virginia Flag, Sic Semper Tyrannis
Sic Semper Tyrannis became a rallying cry for Virginia gun owners.

Hundreds of people showed up for standing room only city council and county board of supervisors’ meetings. In my small town of 15,000, the council chamber was packed and there were people jammed into the lobby and standing outside. There were more people signed up to speak than could be accommodated. The vast majority of the people at those meetings spoke forcefully about their opposition to the proposed new laws. I lived in a college town at the time, with all that entails, and the majority was not as great, but it was a majority, nonetheless. The movement took off seemingly overnight and, currently, 91 of 95 counties and 56 cities and towns are Second Amendment Sanctuaries.

2021 Virginia election. Virginia gun owners turned out in force to county and city meetings in support of Second Amendment Sanctuaries
Virginia gun owners turned out in force to county and city meetings in support of Second Amendment Sanctuaries

Virginia Citizens Defense League

In the forefront of the pro-gun movement was the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL). VCDL’s president, Philip Van Cleave, had warned gun owners about what was coming and implored everyone to vote, but it wasn’t enough. Now, he told everyone to suck it up and deal with what came next. VCDL doesn’t take credit for the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement, though they did a lot of work getting the word out. VCDL was, however, behind the massive turnout in early January 2020 for its annual Lobby Day event.

Lobby Day is when VCDL members show up in Richmond in January to talk to state legislators about gun laws and the Second Amendment. It has historically attracted a couple hundred people and featured a small rally before going into the capitol building to speak to their employees in state government. That changed in 2020. Thanks to the Democrats’ bold pronouncements regarding their gun control agenda, Lobby Day exploded into a national-level protest event that drew, according to VCDL estimates, around fifty thousand people, most of whom carried guns and signs. They choked the Richmond streets for blocks around Capitol Square. VCDL ran buses from across the state and many more were sponsored by private individuals. Lobby Day drew people from across the country and Virginia quickly became the front line of the battle for gun rights.

An estimated 50,000 people from across the country showed up for the 2020 VCDL Lobby Day
An estimated 50,000 people from across the country showed up for the 2020 VCDL Lobby Day.

Thanks to the show of strength at Lobby Day, the Democrats’ plans were crippled. They were able to pass a few gun control measures, but nothing approaching what they had planned for in the wake of the election. Levine’s gun ban bill was essentially killed in committee, as it was sent off to the State Crime Commission for further study. Democrats vowed to bring it back in 2021, but it never happened, and Levine lost his primary election earlier this year. The Democrats were able to revive Virginia’s one handgun per month law, a limited Red Flag law, “universal” background checks, and the prohibition on carrying in the offices of state agencies, but their biggest win came when they repealed Preemption, the law that prohibited localities from passing local gun-control ordinances that were more restrictive than state law. As of right now, sixteen Virginia localities have passed local gun control of varying degrees. Only one of those, the City of Newport News, exempted concealed handgun permit holders from their ordinances.

I also want to note that VCDL was instrumental in limiting the damage. VCDL President Philip Van Cleave, and many other members were constantly on hand for committee hearings and provided a calm, logical voice in the face of the often emotionally driven arguments of the anti-gun crowd. It was they who counteracted the bussed in activists in their red shirts who crowded the galleries of the General Assembly, and they won more points than they lost.

VCDL President Philip Van Cleave is the highly effective leader of Virginia’s Second Amendment fight.
VCDL President Philip Van Cleave is the highly effective leader of Virginia’s Second Amendment fight.

The 2021 Virginia Election

Which brings us to the point of this article: the Virginia election of November 2, 2021. In a shocking turn of fortune, Republicans stormed back to sweep all three statewide offices and regain the House of Delegates. Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, Lt. Governor-elect Winsome Sears, and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares are solidly pro-gun, as are the candidates for the Speakership in the House of Delegates.

The reasons for the win have, by now, been examined ad nauseum, but there’s no doubt that the gun issue, while not at the forefront, played a significant part in the victory.

Frankly, gun owners were fed up.

We are a notoriously independent and often apathetic bunch when it comes to voting on the gun issue. Oh, there are some hard cases, like me, whose vote is almost always swayed by a candidate’s position on guns, but there are too many of us who just don’t care as long as the deer rifle or Grandpa’s shotgun aren’t threatened.

The Democrats’ unbounded anti-gun enthusiasm woke many of those people up. I’ve been talking and listening to people for the last two years on this subject and I can tell you that, especially in the more rural areas, gun owners showed up and they didn’t vote Blue. It took the direct threat posed by the aftermath of 2019 to open the eyes of many.

So, what now?

Well, I spoke to Philip Van Cleave and asked him just that. After a defensive effort worthy of the ’85 Chicago Bears, VCDL is ready to go on offense. I asked him what the priorities are moving forward, and he laid it out.

First, the goal is to reinstate preemption.

A patchwork of different gun laws across the state makes it difficult to know how to conduct oneself as a gun owner when venturing away from the homestead. Plus, VCDL fights for the rights of all Virginians, including those who live in the localities in question. It doesn’t help that many of those ordinances are poorly written and not based on hard data in terms of actually controlling crime. Their primary accomplishment is the disarmament of responsible people who would otherwise prefer to provide for their own safety.

Number two on the list is to reopen the state agencies to lawful carry.

This will take legislative action since the Democrats made the prohibition law, as opposed to just a rule. The Red Flag, “universal” background check law, and one handgun per month law are targeted for repeal as well. I asked Philip whether he thought the slim Democrat margin in the State Senate would block those initiatives, but he told me he was confident they could get something done there. The next Senate election is in 2023.

Let’s Look at the New Players

Philip is tuned into the legislative and legal processes, especially regarding gun laws, better than anyone I’ve ever met. I’ve heard him speak numerous times over the last several years and I often tune in to the monthly VCDL virtual meeting to keep up with what’s going on.

Miyares’ Voting Record

So, I asked him whether he thought Miyares, the new Attorney General, would reverse the course taken by Herring, the outgoing AG. Philip told me that he though so and that Miyares had previously been a Delegate in the General Assembly and his voting record on guns has been good. That will be a welcome change to Herring’s shenanigans and will be a big part of returning Virginia to a pro-Second Amendment state.

Lt. Governor-elect Winsome Sears has made no bones about her pro-gun stance.

She may be critical going forward as the tiebreaker in the Senate. I can say that I’m very impressed by her and I’ll be damned glad when she’s in office.

2021 Virginia election: Lt. Governor-elect Winsome Sears, gun rights candidate
Lt. Governor-elect Winsome Sears has been quite clear where she stands on gun rights. (Photo source:

Which brings us to the Governor-elect, Glenn Youngkin.

Every election cycle, VCDL sends a questionnaire to each candidate to provide them with an opportunity to lay out their position on guns and the Second Amendment. Some return those questionnaires, and some don’t. Youngkin elected not to do so, and he did not make guns an issue other than to state that he disagreed with McAuliffe’s positions. I asked Philip what he thought of Youngkin’s positions and whether he thought that the failure to return the questionnaire was a calculated move aimed at presenting a moderate face to the suburbs in light of Michael Bloomberg’s injection of well over a million dollars into the campaign of his Democrat opponent, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, who obligingly pushed strict gun control.

McAuliffe and the Democrats, however, and unsurprisingly, pushed too hard. A shady PAC, posing as Republicans, ran ads in rural areas trying to paint Youngkin as anti-gun. The clear intent was to suppress the vote of gun owners.

VCDL and others were on it quickly and put the word out on the ad’s true nature. It was then revealed that the state’s largest electricity provider, Dominion Power, contributed significantly to the PAC. VCDL called Dominion out publicly and they were inundated with calls and emails from angry gun owners. Dominion later claimed they had no knowledge of the ad or the motivations of the PAC and said they would ask for their money back. But the damage to Democrats was done, and the ad had the opposite effect of its original intent. Rural gun owners showed up to the polls in droves.

Virginia Citizens Defense League
VCDL is a model gun rights organization that inspires similar groups throughout the country. “Guns Save Lives” is the VCDL motto.

Philip indicated to me that he thought Youngkin’s deemphasizing the gun issue was purposeful for the reasons stated. We have no voting record for Youngkin, since this is his first run for public office, but he has never come out in favor of gun control, and he is aware of the margins by which he won in the rural parts of the state. The New York Times had this to say about the rural vote: “In 2008, there were only four small Virginia counties where Republicans won 70 percent or more of the vote in that year’s presidential race. Nowhere was the party above 75 percent. This year, Mr. Youngkin was above 70 percent in 45 counties — and he surpassed 80 percent in 15 of them.”

In some counties, including mine, Youngkin won nearly ninety percent of the vote, outperforming Donald Trump. And the turnout was as high as it’s ever been. Those margins were no fluke. I see it as an encouraging sign that rural Virginians are not content to let the big population centers run the show unchallenged. I hope it shows them that they do indeed have voice if they choose to use it.

Virginia election, Glenn Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe
Gun owners came out strong for Glenn Youngkin (L) in large part because Democrat Terry McAuliffe (R ) was openly and proudly anti-gun. (Image source: Argentina News)

Many have said that Youngkin has provided a blueprint for Republicans in coming elections, and I asked Philip if Youngkin’s seeming to ignore guns in his campaign was part of that blueprint. I was a bit surprised when he said no. He then pointed out that McAuliffe was so bad on guns that the normal rules got “warped.” Gun owners, their awareness raised by the last two years, saw McAuliffe for what he is and determined to vote, if not necessarily for Youngkin, but certainly against McAuliffe. The numbers bear that out. Philip said he thought that guns will still be an issue moving forward.

VCDL goals for the future?

Finally, I asked Philip if he thinks we have an opportunity to not only get rid of the anti-gun laws of the last two years, but to pass some pro-gun stuff. He replied in the affirmative and reminded me that VCDL is always working on that. It was VCDL who, after ten years of work, finally got the ban on restaurant carry repealed. There isn’t a set plan right now, as the top priority is getting rid of the bad stuff, but it’s on the list, with one of those goals being the enactment of Constitutional Carry.

Virginia is still on the front line of the fight for gun rights, but the wind shifted dramatically on November 2. Thanks primarily to the efforts of VCDL, Gun Owners of America, and the tens of thousands of gun owners who stood up the last couple of years, our losses, while not inconsequential, were still minimal, considering what we were looking at in November 2019. But we cannot return to our complacency. That’s what led to 2019. If we value gun rights and the Second Amendment like we say we do, then we have to commit to standing up from here on out. I plan to go to Lobby Day in January. There won’t be 50,000 people there, but I hope we have a great turnout. That’s what it’s gonna take. Demographics are changing. There are no “safe” states anymore. And I will credit Philip for pointing out to me and others a couple years ago that it’s better to stand up here than to move to a more friendly state. Because if they win here, it’s only a matter of time until they seek us out there. So, stand up, if not in the literal sense of the men of April 19 (look it up), then certainly in emulation of their spirit.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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