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Virginia Gov. Northam calling for special session of legislature to take up gun control

During a public prayer service Friday in Virginia Beach, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) embraces a man who knew several of the mass shooting victims.
During a public prayer service Friday in Virginia Beach, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) embraces a man who knew several of the mass shooting victims. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(Update: After Virginia Beach shooting, governor calls for special session on gun control)

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) will call Tuesday morning 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.

Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, all Democrats, will stand together at a news conference in Richmond calling for action to ban silencers and high-capacity magazines such as those used in the Virginia Beach incident. All expressed frustration over the weekend that Republicans who control the General Assembly have repeatedly stifled efforts to consider any form of gun control.

Northam told the Associated Press that he will call the session later this summer. Most of the bills he discussed have failed in previous sessions of the legislature, including broadening the ability of local governments to limit firearms in public buildings, mandating universal background checks, limiting purchases to one handgun per month and allowing authorities to seize the weapons of a person found to be a threat to themsevles or others.

One top Republican suggested Monday that he was open to taking up the issue, though he did not commit to specifics. “I was in Virginia Beach yesterday, and I think there ought to be a meaningful discussion legislatively and in the community about gun control,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (James City), according to an account in the Virginia Gazette newspaper that was confirmed by his spokesman.

Norment was addressing about 80 protesters who had gathered outside his office in Williamsburg. They were chanting and holding signs calling for gun control, citing the horrific events Friday, when a Virginia Beach city employee shot and killed 12 people in a municipal building.

But Norment, who voted against a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines this year, added via email that none of the failed legislation met standards for “merits, practical application, and efficacy.”

He told the crowd that he expected the General Assembly to reconsider limiting extended magazines, and one of the protesters came away hopeful.

“I think he was listening,” said Lori Haas, Virginia director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, whose daughter was wounded in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, which left 32 dead. “This issue is not going away. It’s politically volatile for the Republicans.”

The topic is especially sensitive in an election year when all 140 seats in the legislature are on the November ballot. Republicans are nursing two-seat majorities in both the Senate and the House of Delegates, and Democrats are hoping to inspire bigger-than-usual turnout to change the balance of power.

Polls have shown that Virginians increasingly favor tightening the state’s gun laws, which are among the most permissive in the nation. A June 2017 Quinnipiac University poll found that 91 percent of Virginians supported requiring background checks for all gun buyers, for instance.

Northam also is said to be considering some form of executive action, and hinted at possible action in interviews over the weekend.

In January, Virginia GOP killed bill to ban sales of large-capacity magazines

“I will continue to explore our options,” he said Saturday in an interview with NPR. “ . . . And I will have the leadership that’s needed, but I will ask my fellow legislators to explore these options, as well.”

After the Virginia Tech shooting, then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D) ordered a state study of gun safety measures. But in some ways, Virginia has made it easier to acquire guns since then. For instance, a 1993 law restricting individuals to one handgun purchase per month was repealed in 2012.

“We have stepped up our enforcement of some of the gun laws, but . . . when the laws are as weak as they are in Virginia, it makes it that much harder to keep our commonwealth safe,” Herring said Monday in an interview.

Though he would not discuss what Northam might propose Tuesday, Herring said he favors requiring universal background checks for gun purchases; banning high-capacity magazines, silencers and “bump stock” devices that accelerate firing; reimposing the one-gun-a-month law; and passing “red flag” laws that allow police to seize weapons from someone whom the courts have deemed to be a threat.

“These are all reasonable measures that we should have taken by now, but we need to get moving on them,” Herring said.

Republicans in Virginia kill ‘red flag’ bill endorsed by Trump administration

On Sunday, Fairfax spoke at a church in Virginia Beach and called for similar measures.

“It’s a moment for us to pray, to reflect but also to act,” Fairfax said at New Hope Baptist Church. To “amens” and applause from the congregation, Fairfax said the state should not allow access to firearms that can “shoot and kill people at a large scale . . . You have my vow as lieutenant governor: This is a time for serious people to take serious action.”

If all three leaders attend as planned, Tuesday’s event would be the first time Northam, Fairfax and Herring have appeared together since their separate political scandals hit in February.

The issue — as well as the need to console a grieving community — has drawn all three executive branch leaders back into the limelight after several months when they kept relatively low profiles. Northam and Herring are under fire for blackface incidents from their youth, and Fairfax has denied accusations from two women that he sexually assaulted them in separate incidents in 2000 and 2004.

Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who chairs a gun safety caucus, planned to attend the 10 a.m. news conference in Richmond.

“Every time there’s a tragedy, people talk about whether this law or that law could have prevented it,” Ebbin said. “We’ve got to take an approach where we at least try . . . for a more comprehensive approach rather than just react to one piece of this.”

He has backed measures, all failed, that would promote safe storage of guns, prevent children from getting access to weapons and make all sales subject to background checks.

“We are just trying to promote a culture of responsible gun ownership. We are not trying to take away everyone’s guns,” Ebbin said.

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said he favors raising the gun purchase age to 21 and banning high-capacity magazines and military-style weapons.

Over the weekend, several Democrats took to social media to say that Friday’s shooting demonstrated the need to take control of the legislature this fall and pass restrictions on guns.

U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D), who represented Loudoun County in the state Senate until winning her seat in Congress last year, tweeted, “Shame on everyone in the General Assembly who voted against” a bill banning high-capacity magazines. “Elections are coming in November and we need to make sure we flip the House and Senate,” she wrote.

Republicans reacted angrily to that notion — none more than Norment, who told The Washington Post that it was “offensive, disrespectful, and tasteless . . . [to] use a tragedy like this to promote a political agenda.”

Despite the signals Norment sent Monday that he might be loosening his stance, Republicans are not likely to back down on an issue that many see as a fundamental constitutional right. 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. Northam vetoed that.

Another powerful Republican on Monday seemed in no mood for compromise.

“We are going to allow the law enforcement investigation to play out before drawing any major conclusions, but the Virginia Beach Police Chief was very clear that there are no gun control laws that would have stopped this,” House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said via email. “There’s a lot more to learn and it’s disappointing to see those jumping immediately to politics.”

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