RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday he 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,” said Northam, who intends to schedule the session for late June. “We must give Virginians the action they deserve.”
Northam was joined by fellow Democrats Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring at a news conference with more than a dozen other Democratic leaders to challenge the Republicans who control the General Assembly and have repeatedly stifled efforts to consider any form of gun control.
“It’s time for decisive action,” Northam said. “Let Virginia show the nation that we can respond to tragedy with decisive action.”
Northam said he wanted Republican leaders to bring gun control bills to the full General Assembly so they can be voted up or down. Bills sponsored by Democrats in past sessions are usually killed by a handful of Republican lawmakers in committees.
“I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers,” Northam said. “I ask that the bills brought before the legislature are put to a vote by the entire General Assembly. That is why our legislators are voted into office and sent to Richmond. 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. Virginians deserve leadership and they will be watching. The world will be watching.”
The initial Republican response was cool. House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, called Northam’s action “hasty and suspect.” While he said the GOP is ready to take up the issue of gun violence, he noted that the governor cannot “specify what the General Assembly chooses to consider or how we do our work.”
Most gun-control bills have failed in previous sessions of the legislature, including those that would broaden the ability of local governments to limit firearms in public buildings, mandate universal background checks, limit purchases to one handgun per month and allow authorities to seize the weapons of a person found to be a threat to themselves or others.
Northam’s decision to call for a special session puts the GOP on the spot just a few months before November elections that could determine the balance of power in the legislature.
“The governor’s call to Special Session is more likely to inflame political tensions than produce substantive public policy changes that will keep people safe,” Cox said in his emailed statement.
But he said Republicans will be ready to address the topic — though perhaps not in the ways Northam has advocated. The GOP wants tougher penalties for those who use guns to commit crimes, he said.
“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, adding that Republicans favor mandatory minimum sentences.
That’s a sharp stick poked right back at Northam, who is opposed to mandatory minimums because he says they disproportionately burden African Americans.
The governor’s office says it will work with individual legislators to introduce measures including bans on assault weapons, silencers and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, as well as reinstating the one handgun-a-month limit, requiring reporting of a lost or stolen firearm and a so-called 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,” he said, noting that some of the bills, such as background checks, enjoy popular support.
Northam said that while mass shootings capture the public’s attention, more than 1,000 Virginians were killed by guns in 2017 and the death toll continues, including a 9-year-old girl who was fatally shot at a cookout in Richmond on Memorial Day weekend.
One top Republican suggested Monday that he was open to taking up the issue, although 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 Norment, R-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 clinging to 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.
After the Virginia Tech shooting, then-Gov. Tim Kaine 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.
“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, a fellow Democrat, said Tuesday via email. He noted that his administration was able to update the state’s background check system, but blamed Republicans for preventing efforts to do anything more.
Tuesday’s event was 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.
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 GOP leader 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.”