Northam (D) ordered the July 9 session after a gunman killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building on May 31. The governor said the massacre highlighted the need to restrict the availability and deadliness of guns in the state.
Republicans who control both houses of the General Assembly have charged that Northam is playing politics with the tragedy, with an eye on elections this fall for all 140 seats in the legislature. The GOP has thin majorities in both houses, and Democrats hope to change the balance of power.
For years, Republican leaders have throttled gun-control bills in small committees, preventing them from being widely debated. With polls showing a majority of Virginians favoring some types of gun control, Northam urged the legislature to take full floor votes on his proposals next week.
One way to make that happen is for a majority of lawmakers in either chamber to take the unusual parliamentary step of discharging their committees and sending the bills directly to the floor as a “Committee of the Whole.”
The last time the Virginia Senate made such a move to circumvent the committee process on behalf of controversial legislation was in 1959, when Gov. J. Lindsay Almond (D) got enough votes to send a package of school integration bills directly to a floor vote, ushering in the slow collapse of massive resistance and segregation.
“That’s not something the governor has any control over. The General Assembly has prerogative,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said. “But the governor has repeatedly asked leadership to allow every single member a chance to vote on the bills.”
Both Republicans and Democrats have been holding town hall meetings and rallies around the state to build support from various constituents ahead of next week’s session.
GOP leaders have bristled at the idea that Northam would dictate the way the legislature handles bills, and vowed to propose alternative measures to stiffen penalties for gun crime violations and to address mental health issues that contribute to gun violence.
The Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University said Wednesday recent polling shows a majority of voters in the state believe it is more important to control access to guns than to protect gun ownership rights. In an analysis of polling from 2016 and 2018, the university found from 55 to 54 percent favor gun control with 41 percent consistently favoring gun rights.
Support for universal background checks was high across party lines, the survey found.
Northam’s office said it will partner with patrons in both the House of Delegates and the Senate to propose the following specific pieces of legislation:
* Universal background checks, closing a loophole allowing private citizens to sell guns without getting background checks.
* Bans on assault weapons, high-capacity ammunition magazines, silencers and devices that increase a gun’s firing rate (such as “bump stocks”).
* Reinstating a law repealed in 2012 that limited handgun purchases to one per month.
* Requiring anyone whose firearm is lost or stolen to report it to police within 24 hours.
* Creating an “extreme risk protective order” allowing courts to seize guns from people who a judge deems a threat to themselves or others. This is also known as a “red-flag law.”
* Prohibiting anyone subject to a court’s final protective order from possessing a gun. Current law applies a ban only to people who are subject to a protective order for family abuse.
* Allowing cities and counties the ability to pass gun laws stricter than state law, such as banning firearms from public buildings or events.