RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is calling lawmakers back to Richmond for a special session of the General Assembly to take up a package of gun-control bills in the wake of Friday’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach.
“We must do more than give our thoughts and prayers,” Northam said Tuesday, indicating that he will schedule the session for late June. “We must give Virginians the action they deserve.”
Joined by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) at a news conference with more than a dozen other Democratic lawmakers, Northam challenged Republicans to find common ground in the effort to prevent gun violence. The GOP-led legislature has repeatedly stifled any bills seen as limiting gun rights.
Virginia Beach employees returned to their jobs at the municipal center Tuesday for the first time since a co-worker gunned down 12 people Friday afternoon. Police said they were still searching for a motive.
“Let Virginia show the nation that we can respond to tragedy with decisive action,” Northam said. A pediatrician and military veteran who treated troops in Desert Storm, the low-key Northam seemed unusually emotional as he spoke about the lethal power of guns.
“As an Army doctor, I have seen firsthand what a bullet does to a body,” he said, his voice shaking. “And I saw it again this weekend. . . . It is wrong, it is outrageous, it is unforgivable to turn our municipal centers, our schools, our churches, synagogues and mosques into battlefields. . . . That’s what our society has come to because we have failed to act on gun violence.”
Northam said he wants Republican leaders to bring gun-control bills to the full General Assembly instead of quashing them through the committee process.
“I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers,” Northam said, urging voters to call their lawmakers. “Business as usual, with leadership shielding most of their members from taking tough votes by setting early morning hearings before small subcommittees, won’t cut it. . . . The nation will be watching.”
The move puts Republicans on the spot just months before November elections that could determine the balance of power in the legislature, injecting the volatile issue of gun control into an already high-stakes political season. GOP leaders immediately accused Northam of pandering for votes.
“Disappointingly, this governor has opted for political posturing over solutions,” Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said.
House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-
Colonial Heights) called Northam’s action “hasty and suspect.” He said the special session “is more likely to inflame political tensions than produce substantive public policy changes that will keep people safe.”
Republicans are in a risky position, though, because opinion polls have consistently shown that most Virginians favor stricter gun laws, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington.
“Failing to respond to that public feeling, particularly in the aftermath of Virginia Beach, would be politically problematic for Republicans,” Farnsworth said. He added that Northam will get credit if the legislature acts, while a lack of results would give Democrats something to blame on Republicans this fall.
Neither GOP leader shut the door to some kind of action. Norment, who on Monday told demonstrators outside his office in Williamsburg that the legislature might consider banning high-capacity ammunition magazines, scolded the governor for failing to propose “a specific plan or legislative package that hasn’t already been considered.”
Cox said Republicans are ready to take up the issue of gun violence but noted that the governor cannot “specify what the General Assembly chooses to consider or how we do our work.”
As speaker, Cox typically assigns gun-related bills to a subcommittee dominated by five Republicans, who overrule the two Democrats to block bill after bill in famously efficient fashion. Gun-control measures seldom reach a full committee, let alone the House floor.
The only significant gun-related legislation that passed this year was a bill making it easier for out-of-state residents to get a concealed-carry permit, which Northam vetoed.
Cox said Tuesday that Republicans are most interested in stiffer penalties for gun infractions.
“We believe addressing gun violence starts with holding criminals accountable for their actions, not infringing on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Cox said. He suggested tougher mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes.
That’s a sharp stick poked right back at Northam, who is opposed to mandatory minimums because he says they disproportionately affect African Americans.
The governor’s office said it will work with individual lawmakers to introduce measures including bans on military-style weapons, silencers and magazines that hold more than 10 bullets, as well as a reinstatement of the one-handgun-a-month purchasing limit, reporting requirements for lost or stolen firearms, and what is called a red-flag law to allow authorities to seize weapons from someone a court deems to be a threat to themselves or others.
“These are common-sense pieces of legislation. We have introduced them year after year,” Northam said. When he became governor last year, he tried to capitalize on a groundswell of bipartisan best wishes by making his first priority a similar package of gun-control bills.
A Senate committee defeated every one of them within the first week.
While mass shootings capture the public’s attention, Northam said that more than 1,000 Virginians were killed by guns in 2017. The death toll continues: Northam noted that a 9-year-old girl was fatally shot at a cookout in Richmond over Memorial Day weekend and a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed in Norfolk on Sunday.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D), who was governor in 2007 when a gunman killed 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech, on Tuesday blamed Republicans for failing to follow through on efforts to tighten gun laws since then.
“I applaud Governor Northam, who has seen the carnage of gun violence as a pediatrician, for calling the General Assembly to gather in a special session to find solutions,” Kaine said Tuesday via email.
Giffords, the gun violence prevention group, also praised Northam’s decision to call back the legislature.
“Today, Governor Northam declared we must never accept gun violence as normal,” said Nico Bocour, state legislative director at Giffords. “He called on lawmakers to be leaders who will protect their constituents by standing up to the gun lobby that kept Virginia’s laws weak for years. The consequences have been devastating and made it feel like no place in Virginia is safe.”
Gun rights advocates slammed Northam’s move as a cynical ploy.
“It isn’t about saving lives, it isn’t about making things better. It’s about political expediency with elections coming up,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
None of the bills Northam discussed would have made a difference in the Virginia Beach shooting, he said. That gunman carried two legally purchased handguns. Though police recovered a high-capacity magazine and a silencer mechanism from the scene, Van Cleave said banning those devices would not have kept the killer from committing his crimes.
Republican lawmakers also noted that Virginia already prohibits carrying a loaded weapon with a magazine that holds more than 20 rounds and that the Virginia Beach municipal center, where the shooting took place, bans employees from bringing weapons to work.
“If Governor Northam is genuinely interested in pursuing policies that will save lives, he should focus on prosecuting violent criminals and fixing our broken mental-health system, instead of blaming Virginia’s law-abiding gun owners for the act of a deranged murderer,” said Jennifer Baker, spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, which is headquartered in Virginia.
Van Cleave accused Northam of trying to distract people from what he called the “foibles” that have gripped Virginia’s top Democrats since February. Those scandals include Northam and Herring both admitting to blackface incidents from their youth and Fairfax denying the claims of two women who say he sexually assaulted them in separate incidents in 2000 and 2004.
Tuesday marked the first time since Feb. 1 that all three men have appeared together in public. They were somber but polite to one another at the news conference; Herring, who had called for Northam’s resignation in February, and Fairfax both pointedly praised the governor for his leadership in calling the special session.
Underscoring how powerfully Democrats believe the gun-
control issue resonates with voters, about 18 of them appeared with the tarnished executive-branch leaders, many speaking emotionally about the need to act.
“This is not about politics. This is not about party,” said Del. Charniele L. Herring (Alexandria), who leads the House Democratic Caucus and is a member of the Black Caucus, which had called on Northam to resign as the blackface scandal raged. “We must do better. We can both grieve and get to work.”
But Sen. William R. DeSteph Jr. (R-Virginia Beach), whose district includes the scene of the shooting, suggested that producing anything during the special session might be difficult.
“We should not detract from our period of grief by politicizing this tragedy with a debate on gun control,” DeSteph said in a written statement. “We are still planning funerals. That should be our focus.”