RICHMOND — A fiery speech about gun rights brought the Virginia House of Delegates to a halt on Friday, with many Democrats walking out of the chamber and then calling for a recess to try to calm their anger.
Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) set off the reaction with remarks that began by defending Republican resistance to gun-control measures in the wake of the Florida school shooting, but wound up blaming “the abortion industry” for fostering a broken society and castigating the Democratic Party for segregation and the Japanese internment camps of World War II.
He was responding to recent criticism that Republicans have blood on their hands for failing to act on gun violence. “I would really appreciate it if every time you want to make a powerful point, you don’t project the sins, the atrocities and the injustices that the Democratic Party perpetrated onto others onto us,” said Freitas, who is running for the Republican nomination to challenge Sen. Tim Kaine this year. Four others are seeking the GOP nomination, including Corey Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, who equates gun control with castration and is holding campaign events at gun ranges.
After Democrats settled down, Del. Joseph Lindsey (D-Norfolk) told the House that “today, I have been offended as I can never recall since being a part of this body. And I have seen many of my colleagues emotionally shaken and bothered by either a lack of concern for facts or just simply playing to the cameras, I don’t know which.”
The gun issue has bubbled beneath the surface of a legislative session otherwise marked by self-conscious bipartisan cooperation. The Republican leadership of the House killed dozens of gun-control bills introduced by Democrats, including measures to expand background checks, ban the “bump stocks” that increase firing rates and enabling families to have weapons confiscated from dangerous loved ones.
The issue had faded to the background behind high-profile, bipartisan efforts to expand Medicaid, pass utility regulation and approve bills to restructure criminal justice. But since the Valentine’s Day shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead, Democrats have tried to draw more attention to guns.
Several have made floor speeches, and on Thursday House Democrats called on Republicans to revive some of the bills that never made it out of committees.
But it took a sleepy Friday session, with high winds whipping outside the Capitol and delegates eager to wrap up early and head to their home districts, for the tension to finally erupt.
Freitas took the floor of the House during a time set aside for members to make remarks on any topic. He started calmly, arguing that facts and data should be part of the debate about how to prevent gun violence.
Many of the perpetrators of recent mass shootings have come from broken homes, he said. Studies show that the breakdown in families “can be attributed to various cultural changes [from] the Sixties to include the abortion industry,” Freitas said, to groans from Democrats. “The welfare state contributed significantly to dismantling the family,” he continued.
Freitas defended the Second Amendment and decried government efforts to stop people from defending themselves. Democrats really only see one solution to societal violence, he said: “tearing apart or gutting the Second Amendment” and banning all guns.
Why do Republicans resist debating a ban on bump stocks? “Because quite frankly, I don’t think any of us on this side of the aisle believe you when you say that’s all you want to do,” Freitas said.
Instead, Democrats just want to demonize their opponents, “comparing members on this side of the aisle to Nazis,” he said, referring to an email Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) sent out to supporters last month that slammed Republicans for supporting assault weapons similar to those “created by Nazi Germany.”
Freitas criticized a letter from a 24-year-old teacher, which Del. Dawn Adams (D-Richmond) read a few days ago, in which the teacher said she worried that politicians were debating between the Second Amendment and her life. And Freitas was especially upset, he said, by a recent comment from Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax) comparing the gun rights issue to segregation.
“I just want to remind everyone of something very quickly. It was not our party that supported slavery, that fought women’s suffrage, that rounded up tens of thousands of Asian Americans and put them in concentration camps, that supported Jim Crow, that supported segregation or supported mass resistance. That wasn’t our party. That was the Democrat party,” he said.
At this point large numbers of Democrats, including most of the Black Caucus, got up and left the chamber. Even a few Republicans slipped out.
Freitas said that if Democrats want to have an honest debate on gun issues, it should “start with a certain degree of mutual respect.” They shouldn’t assume he has been bought off by the NRA, he said, and he wouldn’t assume Democrats were paid off by Planned Parenthood.
After seven minutes, he finished to applause from many Republicans, and most of the Democrats came back into the chamber.
But after another Republican, Del. Thomas Wright Jr. (R-Lunenberg), who chairs the subcommittee that shelved most gun-control bills, stood and blamed gun violence on school systems that stopped teaching about God, Democrats began leaving the chamber again.
Del. David Toscano (D-Charlottesville), the House minority leader, asked for a recess.
A few Republicans, including Del. Greg Habeeb (R-Salem), huddled with several Democrats to try to smooth things over. But Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), who heads the Legislative Black Caucus, was steamed.
It’s one thing to make a political point about the NRA and Planned Parenthood, he told Habeeb, but suggesting that it was Republicans who were “freeing my people? I mean, come on.”
When they returned from a 15-minute recess, the Democrats had Lindsey — who is African American and seldom speaks on the House floor — make a few remarks to express their unhappiness and call for civility.
The calm only lasted a moment, though.
Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), the House majority leader, stood for remarks of his own. He first thanked Lindsey, but quickly worked himself into a lather over guns. “We have sat here for a week and listened to the other side of the aisle accuse us in every different way that they can . . . of being complicit with Nazis and terrorists and al-Qaeda,” he said. “Sometimes we can only take about so much of that.”
As Gilbert grew more agitated, at one point saying the idea of holding criminals accountable is not “in high favor” among Democrats anymore, Toscano began interrupting with protests to Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights).
Cox warned Gilbert that he had only two minutes more to speak. “Everyone take a deep breath,” Cox said.
During the hubbub, Adams, the Democrat who had spoken a few days ago about the 24-year-old teacher who was distraught over guns, made her way over to Freitas’s desk and spoke with him.
“I just wanted to figure out what was going on with him. That’s all,” she said later. “We didn’t get to finish our conversation.”