HAMPTON, Va. — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is taking his crusade for gun control to the people of Virginia, and the people are sending back mixed messages.
In community forums around the state ahead of a special legislative session on gun violence set for July 9, some of the public response has been predictable. Legions of gun advocates — many of them white men wearing orange “Guns Save Lives” stickers — have angrily invoked the Second Amendment as tearful parents have demanded laws to protect their children.
But in some parts of the state, residents are delivering another point of view: To really stem the gun violence that claims three Virginia lives every day, elected leaders have to address the accumulated neglect of ailing communities of color.
That message was delivered forcefully and repeatedly this week in Hampton at the largest of six statewide roundtables hosted by Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security. Residents and officials from the Hampton Roads region told Moran that the governor’s proposals are not enough.
LaTonya Wallace, who runs a community organization for children in an impoverished section of Newport News, told Moran the real issue is what she called unaddressed trauma. “Low access to jobs, little to no access to quality health care,” she said, and “inequitable education systems.”
“All of that through decades and decades and redlining and gentrification and population displacement and no resources funneling back into communities like the community I live in. . . . That [exacerbates] gun violence in our community,” Wallace said. “No legislation right here, right now, is being proposed that’s going to address the trauma.”
That’s a direct challenge to Northam, who was politically hobbled earlier this year by charges of racism. After he refused to resign over a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page, and after admitting that he wore blackface in a dance contest that year, Northam pledged to devote the remainder of his term to fighting for racial equity.
But that’s not on the agenda he laid out when he called on the General Assembly to convene next month. Northam ordered the session after a mass shooting May 31, in Virginia Beach, in which 12 people were killed at a municipal office building.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot this fall, and Democrats say gun control is a winning issue for them as they seek to gain control of the House and Senate. Republicans hold a three-seat edge in the House (51 to 48) and a bare majority in the Senate (20 to 19), with one vacant seat in each chamber. The GOP has shown little willingness to compromise on restricting access to guns.
Northam is proposing legislation to ban assault weapons, silencers and extended ammunition magazines; allow law enforcement to seize firearms belonging to someone deemed a risk to themselves or others; require owners to report lost or stolen firearms; limit handgun purchases to one per month; give localities more authority to ban guns in public places; and preventing children from having access to loaded weapons.
Northam pitched most of those proposals when he assumed office in 2017, but they were promptly killed by GOP-controlled committees in the legislature.
“The governor is overreaching and focusing on politics instead of real solutions,” said Parker Slaybaugh, spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights). Cox has said the GOP will offer measures to increase legal penalties for firearms violations, an approach Northam opposes.
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association has announced town hall meetings next week hosted by several Republicans in the Virginia Senate, including William R. DeSteph Jr. (R-Virginia Beach), whose district includes the site of last month’s mass shooting.
Philip Van Cleave, head of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, has attended several of the governor’s roundtables and rallied his members to do the same.
“The human brain is the real weapon,” Van Cleave said Monday night at the Hampton event. “If you want to do something that would save lives . . . let people with permits that work for local government and at state government carry at work.”
His organization has posted online a customizable email for residents to send to their lawmakers, urging them to “vote AGAINST all of the proposed gun-control measures being considered in the special session of the General Assembly.”
At a roundtable last week in Abingdon in Southwest Virginia, most of the attendees were gun rights advocates who shouted down Moran and promised that gun control could never pass in Virginia.
That opposition was expected, but the mixed reception among black community leaders in Hampton was striking, and similar themes came up at a forum last week in Richmond attended by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D) and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D).
“It certainly brought out a variety of opinions, and I think all are worth listening to,” Moran said later in an interview. Two more public forums are planned for next week in Northern Virginia, featuring state Health and Human Resources Secretary Daniel Carey.
Moran acknowledged that Northam’s proposals for the special session would not address deeper issues in violence-plagued communities, but there will be time for that in the General Assembly’s regular session in January, he said.
“The governor is focused on gun control measures,” Moran said. “We all recognize that more needs to be done in the area of poverty, housing, opportunity, jobs, education.”
He noted that the successful effort to expand Medicaid in Virginia is a step toward helping disadvantaged communities.
“The conversation can be much broader than just the firearms, but the governor wants to start with a conversation about how we have too many guns on the streets and the types of guns are too dangerous,” Moran said.
The Hampton forum drew more than 150 people and came just days after a weekend shooting at a popular local beach that left four people wounded — including two children.
One woman said her 22-year-old daughter had witnessed the incident. “Do I need to stay barricaded in my house?” said the woman, a human resources executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity because police had not yet identified the shooter.
“We are not trying to take away your right to own a gun,” she said, turning to a group of gun advocates. But there need to be limits on access to weapons, she added.
Several firearms supporters countered that limiting legal access to guns would not stop criminals, and some residents and activists from low-income neighborhoods agreed.
James Braxton III, who works for a community group called Rise for Youth, said he favors gun restrictions but that few of them would affect the problems he sees every day.
“If they really want to see an impact in those communities, it’s not going to be gun control legislation, it’s going to be strategic investments in dealing with the root causes of violence,” Braxton said in an interview.
At the Hampton forum, he urged Moran to get input from people who have committed acts of violence to understand what put a gun in their hands. He also called for grief counseling for children who witness trauma in their neighborhoods.
Wallace, the community leader from Newport News, said she will be watching how Northam handles this issue in the wake of the blackface scandal.
“If he has changed, then we just want to see it through action,” she said.
Several prominent black officials told Moran that action has to involve laws that affect not just guns, but also people.
“At the end of the day, it is a public health crisis that we’re facing,” said Hampton Commonwealth’s Attorney Anton Bell, who is African American. “You cannot arrest your way out of it. You cannot prosecute your way out of it.”
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.