Fairfax, VA - December 14, 2017: Protesters gather outside the National Rifle Association for a vigil on the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. (Shutterstock)

Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ gun safety group will “clean up the literal mess” outside the NRA’s headquarters in Northern Virginia.

Giffords, the gun safety organization co-founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, has announced plans to adopt a highway outside the NRA’s Northern Virginia headquarters.

In its deal to adopt Virginia Highway 665 in Fairfax, known as Waples Mill Road, Giffords will clean the highway twice a year for three years. In exchange, the Virginia Department of Transportation will install a sign recognizing the adoption by Giffords.

“We often talk about the NRA being in the backyard of Virginia voters, and what better way demonstrates the mess they’ve made then to actually roll up our sleeves and go clean up the literal mess on the highway,” Giffords Political Director Joanna Belanger said in an exclusive interview with the Dogwood.

The NRA Headquarters in Fairfax, VA

Following the May mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam called a special session of the General Assembly to address gun violence and introduced eight bills to strengthen the state’s gun laws. But Republicans cut the session short without considering a single bill, leading gun safety groups like Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety, and Giffords to vow retribution at the ballot box.

By October, one month before the Nov. 5, 2019 elections, a Washington Post-Schar School poll found gun policy was the top issue for Virginia voters.

On election day, Democrats flipped the House and Senate, earning full control of the government for the first time in 26 years. Nearly 60% of Giffords-backed candidates won their races, all but guaranteeing a new rulebook on gun policy in Virginia.

Three days after the election, Republicans cancelled a meeting of the State Crime Commission that they had arranged at the special session to review the Governor’s gun bills in-lieu of considering them at the time.

“It just goes to show, they don’t really want to understand this issue better. They were doing the gun lobby’s bidding,” said Nico Bocour, Giffords’ Virginia legislative director.

Sticking that message to voters has not been easy, Belanger said. “This did not happen overnight, it’s taken a decade,” she said. She traced it back to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, among the first tragedies that brought the issue of gun violence into focus. As years passed, the list of reforms obstructed by Republicans piled up. Democratic candidates increasingly made addressing gun violence a theme in their campaigns. Eventually, voters began to “connect that fear and that frustration they have with the ability to do something about it at the ballot,” Belanger said.

The 2019 Virginia Beach shooting and Republicans’ decision to avoid consideration of any gun reforms brought the issue to a head this summer.

“I think we can say, resoundingly, given that this was the preeminent issue that folks were paying attention to this year, that gun safety essentially won in Virginia,” Bocour said. Giffords expects the 2020 General Assembly to move swiftly on enacting the comprehensive gun reform package introduced by Gov. Northam.

NRA-backed Republicans who thought they were safe by doing what was traditional for them — dodging discussions of gun violence — are seeing “that that’s just not going to be accepted by the voters,” Bocour said.

Giffords volunteers prepare to pick up litter along a stretch of highway adopted by the gun safety group

The outcome of Virginia’s elections could put more pressure on Congress to act, too, especially in the wake of last week’s school shooting in California.

“For at least the seventh time this year, Americans across the country are devastated to learn that children have been injured and killed in a school shooting,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) wrote on Twitter. “This tragedy comes more than seven months after Republicans & Democrats in the House came together to pass a gun violence prevention bill. I hope my colleagues in the U.S. Senate will heed the call of the American people to take action, and finally vote on our bipartisan bill,” she said.

“What happens in Virginia doesn’t stay in Virginia, because everyone knows Virginia’s off-year elections are a national bellwether,” Everytown for Gun Safety President John Feinblatt said in a press call. “That’s especially true for candidates, including President Trump, who are looking for a read on what suburban voters want.” Everytown invested $2.5 million into the Virginia elections, making it the largest outside spender.

“The NRA couldn’t defend its own backyard, which raises the question: will the NRA, which was Trump’s biggest donor in 2016, be a major player in 2020?”