Ralph Northam supported stronger gun laws when doing so was politically risky. That’s leadership.
Next week, Democrats in Virginia will head to the polls to choose a Democratic candidate for governor. As one of only a handful of states to hold elections this year, Virginia has the opportunity to set the Democratic Party’s Trump-era agenda. And the hotly contested primary has made it clear that gun violence prevention is a priority for the resistance.
Both Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and former Congressman Tom Perriello have spent considerable time affirming their commitment to gun violence prevention. Last month, the candidates stood together at a gun violence prevention forum. Last Friday, both Northam and Perriello wore orange for National Gun Violence Awareness Day. In a public shift, Perriello has promised to be a champion for stronger gun laws despite endorsements from the National Rifle Association (NRA) in years past.
I am heartened by Perriello’s evolution and both candidates’ commitment to gun violence prevention. But in this vital race for Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I must support the candidate who has spent his entire career fighting for stronger gun laws: Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam.
I met Ralph almost 10 years ago. Even then — before gun violence prevention was a mainstream political issue — he understood the topic and cared deeply about saving lives. As a pediatric neurologist, Ralph had seen the effects of gun violence firsthand. He had seen devastation of firearm homicides and suicides in his home district and across the commonwealth. He knew the gun lobby was in the wrong.
In 2007, months after the Virginia Tech massacre, Ralph was elected to the Virginia Senate, defeating a two-term incumbent Republican. Shortly afterwards, Ralph met with survivors, family members, and other gun violence prevention activists. He promised to fight for stronger gun laws. And he kept his promise. In 2009, he risked his Senate seat by casting his vote to close the gun show loophole. Though the vote was considered politically risky, Ralph’s commitment to gun violence prevention earned Virginians’ trust. His record helped him win re-election in the Senate and later helped him win his seat as lieutenant governor.
As lieutenant governor, Ralph has continued to lead the fight for stronger gun laws. Just last year, he cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate against permitless concealed carry. He has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with survivors and activists at rallies. He has seized every opportunity to speak out for gun violence prevention. He is a time-tested leader in our movement, and I am confident that he will continue to lead and advocate for stronger gun laws as governor.
Perriello, on the other hand, is a newcomer to gun violence prevention. As a congressman, Perriello touted his “A” rating from the NRA. But since his departure from the House of Representatives in 2010, his stance has evolved. He has begun to distance himself from the gun lobby — and rightfully so.
Perriello has defended his previous ties to the NRA, saying the organization “left him” — that they changed. But anyone who has been paying attention knows the NRA has not changed — it is the same organization it was in 2010.
The NRA opposed background checks on all gun sales in 2010. They still do.
The NRA opposed an assault weapons ban in 2010. They still do.
The NRA opposed one-gun-a-month rules, smart guns, and microstamping in 2010. They still do.
The NRA has been an extremist organization for years. What has changed is the politics of guns in Virginia.
Over the last ten years, Virginia voters have empowered our leaders to stand up to the NRA. Politicians have discovered that they have more to gain by challenging the gun lobby than by catering to them. The politicians who have won statewide in Virginia — including Tim Kaine, Terry McAuliffe, Mark Herring, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama — are those who have taken on the gun lobby. Each time a strong gun violence prevention advocate wins an election, our movement gets stronger, our priorities clearer, our leadership bolder.
Perriello’s shift on guns is a positive evolution. The gun violence prevention movement welcomes his support. But he should acknowledge he is the one who changed. He should acknowledge that the NRA is the same toxic organization it has been for years.
To say otherwise is to discount the work of longtime gun violence prevention advocates, pioneers of our movement, politicians who went out on a limb and stood up to the NRA when conventional wisdom warned against it.
Leaders like Ralph Northam.
Next week, we have the chance to send a strong message to the NRA and the NRA-backed White House. We have the chance to make gun violence prevention the cornerstone of the resistance. We have the chance to nominate a candidate who supported stronger gun laws long before it was politically “safe” to do so.
We must take the opportunity. We must elect Ralph Northam as Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Josh Horwitz is the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. He is a resident of Virginia.