After massacre, Virginia governor demands action on guns

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (center) pauses while making remarks as he held a press conference dealing with gun violence that was attended by a large number of legislators and activists inside the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, June 4, 2019. The governor issued an executive order calling for a special session of the legislature later this month to deal with the situation. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Democratic elected officials in Western Virginia praised Gov. Ralph Northam’s call for a special session to take up gun control legislation in the wake of the Virginia Beach mass shooting.

“The public is demanding action,” said state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke.

Northam stood alongside Attorney General Mark Herring, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and other legislators Tuesday to lay out some priorities he’d like to see tackled during the special session.

He’s proposing ideas that have come before the Republican-controlled legislature before, including universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons, a revived limit of purchasing only one gun a month and a requirement for people to report lost or stolen firearms.

“For those who say it’s too soon, I would say it’s too late,” said Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, who stood beside Northam in Richmond. “When we have more people dying from gun violence than car crashes, then we have a problem that needs to be addressed.”

Hurst supports passing extreme risk protection orders, commonly known as red flag laws. The laws have been spreading rapidly across the country since the school shooting last year in Parkland, Florida.

Extreme risk protection orders allow a third party — a police officer, family member, school official or mental health provider, depending on the state — to petition a judge for a warrant to seize legally owned guns if someone is determined to be an immediate threat to themselves or others.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to come up with some policy solutions that will save lives,” said Hurst, whose girlfriend, WDBJ-7 reporter Alison Parker, was shot and killed on live television in 2015.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who has been working diligently on improving the state’s mental health system, said he believes a red flag law would have a significant effect in reducing gun deaths. Deeds has been working closely on mental health issues ever since his son stabbed him with a knife and then killed himself with a rifle in their home in 2013.

Research on red flag laws has also shown encouraging results in curbing suicide by firearm.

“The devil’s in the details about everything,” said Deeds, who appeared with Northam. “There are a lot of things the broad majority of Virginians support. And Democrats and Republicans across the country have supported red flag laws.”

Both Deeds and Edwards are two longtime Democratic legislators in rural Virginia who held pro-gun rights stances and have received high marks from the National Rifle Association. They’ve shifted in recent years toward supporting more gun restrictions.

Deeds cited a saying from the late Del. Clifton “Chip” Woodrum of Roanoke: “You have the right to be smarter tomorrow than today.”

“You have to be willing to be open,” Deeds said. “They’re not electing who you used to be, but who you are.”

Edwards said the Parkland shooting changed his attitude. During the most recent legislative session, Edwards carried a bill on behalf of the Roanoke City Council to allow localities an option to ban firearms from venues where its governing body is meeting. A GOP-controlled panel killed the bill, preventing it from receiving a vote on the floor.

Northam cited granting local governments an option to ban firearms from where its governing body is meeting as one issue he’d like to see the General Assembly take up at its special session.

“I commend the governor for stepping up and trying,” Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea said. “We mourn and we pray. And it seems like people also just want to put their heads in the sand. Meanwhile, who’s next?”

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, pointed to Northam calling for a ban on bump stocks — which are illegal under federal law — and silencers — which are legal in Virginia but illegal in Virginia Beach per local ordinance — as an indication that the governor “appears to be trying to use a tragedy to promote an unrelated agenda.”

“Unfortunately the governor appears more interested in political posturing than finding actual solutions,” Suetterlein said.

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, wrote on social media, “Politics should wait while the families are wrapped in love and begin to heal.”

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, is one of the staunchest supporters of gun rights in the legislature. In a statement, Reeves referenced his role in brokering a deal three years ago with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, to maintain and expand concealed-carry permit deals with other states, and to take guns from domestic violence offenders who are under permanent protection orders.

“I am hopeful Governor Northam is as open to working with leaders on both sides of the aisle as Terry and I did then,” Reeves said.

Senator Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City, said Northam “opted for political posturing over solutions.”

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said the governor’s call for a special session was “hasty and suspect considered against the backdrop of the last few months.”

Northam is still pushing through the scandal that erupted after a racist photo appeared on his page in his medical-school yearbook. In the months since, he’s been advocating for causes important to black voters.

Lea said tackling gun violence fits with Northam’s mission post-scandal, and he praised him for his willingness to take on the issue.

“Gun violence has been a problem in the African American community,” Lea said.

Most of the city’s violent crime takes place in predominantly black northwest Roanoke. Last week, a shooting in that part of the city in the middle of the day wounded three people. Two days later, a white teen was shot in southwest Roanoke.

The city council on Monday moved to create a task force to examine the causes of gun violence in the city and to make recommendations for how to address them.

“As elected officials, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Have I done all I can do?’ ” Lea said. “And we haven’t. There’s a lot more that can be done.”

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Amy Friedenberger is the politics reporter for The Roanoke Times. She's been a reporter here since 2014. Previously, she worked for newspapers in Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter at @ajfriedenberger.

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