COLONIAL HEIGHTS — When Glen Sturtevant stood to speak to diehard gun rights supporters gathered at an American Legion post last week, he knew he had some explaining to do.
A former state senator with a moderate profile who is trying to make a political comeback in a more conservative district, Sturtevant opened his remarks by telling the crowd he had cast some votes he “regretted.” Supporting a proposed red flag law in 2019, he said later in Thursday’s candidate forum hosted by the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, was “a mistake.”
“At the time we thought it was a way to try to stop some of these shootings by mentally ill folks,” Sturtevant said, noting that both former President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association had expressed support for red flag laws as a general concept. “We’ve seen since that it is abusive and bad policy.”
Sturtevant’s vote for a red flag law, an idea that didn’t pass in 2019 but was enacted in 2020 once Democrats took full control of the General Assembly, has been an early sticking point in what’s expected to be one of the liveliest Republican primary battles of 2023.
Both of Sturtevant’s GOP opponents in the suburban Richmond district — firebrand Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and nonprofit leader and former congressional candidate Tina Ramirez — have used the issue to attack Sturtevant, highlighting the electoral risks for Republicans who express any support for limitations on gun rights.
Sturtevant, Chase and Ramirez will face off in a primary on June 20. The district they’re competing in leans Republican, covering a large swathe of Chesterfield County and the city of Colonial Heights.
At the VCDL forum, all three candidates said they would vote to repeal Virginia’s red flag law.
“I don’t have any votes that I need to apologize for, though I do appreciate the apology,” Chase said. “I have a 100% VCDL score, 100% of the time.”
Ramirez said she believes the law, which allows authorities to temporarily seize firearms from people deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others, violates both the Second Amendment and Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“Anyone that would support this kind of legislation isn’t only not a conservative, they’re not a constitutionalist,” Ramirez said.
Over more than an hour of questioning from VCDL President Philip Van Cleave, all three candidates repeatedly said they’d work to repeal gun control laws Democrats passed in 2020 and support a so-called constitutional carry law, which would allow Virginians to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
All three said they support lifting restrictions on regular citizens owning fully automatic machine guns. Federal law prohibits civilian ownership of machine guns made after 1986 but includes exemptions for machine guns legally owned prior to that year. Both state and federal law require machine guns to be registered with government agencies.
Raising the specter of war with China, Chase said “we as Americans always have to be ready to go to war.”
“I want to have what they have,” Chase said. “Because I’m not gonna go with a knife to a gunfight.”
Ramirez said people should be able to choose whichever type of firearm works for them.
“Sometimes it’s actually really nice to have one that shoots all over the place if you don’t know exactly how to shoot the target as well as you would like,” she said.
The three contenders also backed the idea of automatically restoring gun rights to people with felony convictions once they leave prison.
“That’s something that I’m going to champion,” Sturtevant said. “When a person has paid their debt to society, and they have done their sentence, they need to get all their rights back, including their gun rights. We’re not gonna pick and choose what rights the state is willing to give back to you.”
Under current law, felons who have had their voting rights restored by a governor can petition a court for restoration of their firearm rights, with an opportunity for prosecutors to object if the requester has a history of violence.
The candidates all expressed broad opposition to location-specific restrictions on guns. But they differed in their responses to questions on how to handle guns in schools.
After Van Cleave asked if Virginia should follow Utah’s lead and allow concealed carry permit holders to take guns into schools, Sturtevant, who formerly served on the Richmond City School Board, said he supports Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s push for armed police officers in every school. But he said he believes it should be up to local officials to decide who should be allowed to have guns in school buildings. Chase and Ramirez disagreed, saying teachers and others should be allowed to have firearms to protect themselves and students.
“Whether you’re a teacher or a coach, no matter who you are, you should be able to carry,” Chase said.
Asked after the forum if she thinks gun-carrying privileges in schools should also extend to students who are 18 or older, Chase said she sees the situation as no different than allowing 18-year-olds to serve in the military.
“If they’re reckless with it, they can lose that right,” she said. “We do have responsible 18-year-olds.”
Sturtevant was the only Senate Republican who voted for the initial bill creating a red flag law when it was put to a committee vote in 2019. The bill failed to advance out of that committee in a 7-7 vote. When the red flag legislation that ultimately passed came to the Senate floor the next year, no Republicans supported it.
Republican lawmakers, including Chase, have filed several bills to repeal Virginia’s red flag law, but those efforts have been unsuccessful due to the Democratic majority in the state Senate.
Sturtevant was one of the most imperiled Senate Republicans in 2019, a year when the suburban anti-Trump backlash delivered Democratic majorites in both General Assembly chambers. Sturtevant lost his seat to Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, in one of the most expensive races of the 2019 cycle.
In interviews after the forum, both Ramirez and Chase said they think Sturtevant’s 2019 vote shows his willingness to compromise on what they see as a core issue for conservatives.
“If you couldn’t trust him then because he was willing to compromise his values to get reelected, then why should we trust him now when it’s a more conservative seat?” Ramirez said.
In an interview, Sturtevant said his change of heart on red flag laws came about when he realized there was “too much of an opportunity for abuse.”
“It allows the taking away of a constitutional right without due process,” he said, emphasizing his legislative record as a whole was broadly supportive of gun rights.
In his closing remarks to the VCDL crowd, he pitched himself as the most electable candidate in a race Senate Republicans can’t afford to lose if they want to give Youngkin Republican majorities for the final two years of the governor’s four-year term.
“We cannot mess around,” Sturtevant said. “Because we are not guaranteed another Republican governor in the next gubernatorial election.”