Does Virginia's Governor Mean It About Restoring Rights for Felons?

Will they be able to exercise their right to own a gun again, or just to vote for their leaders?


Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) took a well-earned victory lap last week. Republicans have been having not just a cow but an entire herd of cattle over his executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons. To hear the GOP tell it, every last one of them is a psychotic, ax-murdering rapist. Yet last week, the McAuliffe administration released data showing that those affected by the order were, in the words of its press release, "overwhelmingly nonviolent." Only 21 percent had been convicted of a violent offense, and the average offender had completed his sentence more than a decade ago.

Thursday evening McAuliffe spoke—you could almost say preached—to a black church, terming the day he signed the order his "greatest day as governor." Recalling the racist history of black disenfranchisement, of which barring felons from the polls was a part, the governor said restoring voting rights was "morally the right thing to do." He repeated the point again a couple of minutes later: "This has nothing to do with politics. This has to do with justice. This has to do with morality. These people have served their time and done their probation or done their parole. They are free in society… Why should they not have access to our ballot?"

That's true—except perhaps for the part about politics. People can have more than one reason for doing something. Figures from other states show ex-cons generally register as Democrats by lopsided margins. McAuliffe, a longtime friend of Hillary Clinton, is as politically astute as they come. 

Political acumen also might explain why McAuliffe restored felons' rights to run for public office, serve on juries, and act as notaries public—but didn't even try to restore their right to own guns. In fact, his executive order singled out that right for categorical exemption: "Nothing in this Order restores the right to ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms."

Letting felons own guns is a provocative, even alarming idea at first blush. But the exemption directly contradicts everything he and his supporters have been saying: Ex-cons "deserve the right to be fully reintegrated into society," as another Virginia newspaper columnist put it over the weekend. "Fully" is not a synonym for "partly."

And as the governor's own figures show, four out of five felons affected were not violent to begin with—so there is no reason to think they would be violent in the future. In any event, McAuliffe says he doesn't care whether they were violent or not. "I'll be honest with you," he said at the 31st Street Baptist Church. "That doesn't mean a whit to me." Restoring voting rights, he said, is "the right thing to do once you've paid your debt to society. . . . You have paid the price. You are done with the legal system. You are back in society."

Granted, certain complexities of both state and federal law might make restoring gun rights slightly more involved than restoring voting rights. Virginians who have had other civil rights restored have to petition a court for restoration of their gun rights. But McAuliffe is rarely one to let technicalities get in the way of doing what he wants (witness the recent grant to Norfolk Southern to move some jobs across the state).

Besides, at 31st Street Baptist the governor said that when he decided to restore voting rights he told his staff, "No more excuses. I want you to get the best legal minds you can get in here. If there is a way to do this, I will do this." Yet when it comes to gun rights, a spokesman says, the governor is satisfied with current law. Why?

As noted in this column a couple of weeks ago, the ban on felon gun ownership disproportionately affects African-Americans, and to exactly the same degree as the ban on voting rights does. Like the denial of voting rights, denying gun rights to blacks has a long and sordidly racist history too. Every reason the governor has given for restoring voting rights applies with equal force to restoring gun rights. So why didn't he?

Is politics the reason? The governor presents himself as righteously, almost angrily, indifferent to politics where questions of civil rights are involved.

It might be that gun rights are less sacred than voting rights. Perhaps—although the Bill of Rights dedicates an entire amendment (the Second) to that topic, despite lumping several other sacred rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, together in the First. But even if the right to bear arms ranks below the right to vote in importance, it surely ranks above the right to serve as a notary public.

The truth is that McAuliffe simply doesn't approve of gun rights. When he ran for governor, he "proudly tout(ed) his F rating" from the NRA, The New Republic noted at the time. But other people's rights are not supposed to depend on whether we approve of them or not; that is, in a sense, the entire meaning of the term. If McAuliffe means what he has said about redemption, then he will follow up his move on voting rights with a similar effort for gun rights—at least for nonviolent felons.

If he really means what he says.

This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.