RICHMOND — Armed militia members and gun control activists swarmed the grounds and streets outside the state Capitol building Tuesday morning, trying to sway lawmakers gathering for a special session to debate gun regulation in a state where 12 people died in a mass shooting in May.

Men in camouflage, some with holstered handguns dangling from their hips, gathered not far from a heavily female crowd wearing red "Moms Demand Action" T-shirts. Busloads of activists rolled into the city, their passengers bracing for a long day.

By 8:30 a.m. about 150 pro-gun demonstrators assembled outside the white-columned Capitol.

Jeff Squires, 57, said he wants legislators to hear first hand from gun owners who feel under siege.

"It's an incremental taking away of rights," Squires said, after ticking off proposed gun regulations that seek to keep guns outside of government buildings and limit the types of weapons they can use.

"There's an agenda to take away guns and this is how they're doing it," he said. "I understand there's violence. It's not just with guns, though. It's people with those guns."

At the nearby bell tower in Capitol Square, Gov. Ralph Northam addressed a peace vigil, leading more than 100 people in chants of "Enough is Enough!" and a call and response of "Why are we here?" "Votes and laws!"

When Northam, a Democrat, ordered the special session in the wake of the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach, he said he wanted "votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers" to address gun violence in the state, which claimed more victims in 2018 than traffic deaths.

Richmond NAACP President James Minor called on attendees to "support our governor" and his gun control efforts. And he sent a political message in biblical language: "If you cannot do right by the people, if you cannot do right by the children, then ye shall be removed."

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney told the crowd: "There will be a day of reckoning. If not today, then it will be at the ballot box in November."

Democrats filed a series of measures, backed by Northam, aimed at reducing the availability or lethality of firearms. His priorities include a ban on devices that make guns fire faster or hold more bullets, limiting handgun purchases to one per month, instituting universal background checks, and allowing courts to seize weapons from someone deemed to be a threat.

Activists on both sides formed a line that snaked around the state Pocahontas Building, as they filed in to try to meet with lawmakers before the General Assembly was to convene at noon.

As the pro-gun group headed inside, several members pulled out their gun permits.

"Are you carrying?" a guard asked everyone who filed in, while the metal detector alarms rang again and again as they passed through.

Republicans who control the legislature have stymied gun control bills year after year and have accused Northam of trying to capitalize on tragedy for political gain.

This is a pivotal election year in Virginia. All 140 seats in the legislature are on the ballot in November, and Democrats are hoping to take control of both chambers for the first time in more than 20 years. Republicans have a 51-48 edge in the House of Delegates and a 20-19 advantage in the Senate, with one vacancy in each chamber.

That dynamic puts even more heat into the incendiary issue of gun control, which animates the base of each party. National groups, including the pro-gun NRA and the gun control groups Giffords, Everytown for Gun Safety, Brady and Moms Demand Action, have been focusing on the fight in Virginia.

In a sign that some GOP lawmakers might concede ground in the gun debate, Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City, filed a bill on Monday that would ban firearms from local government buildings around the state and make any violation a felony. State law now bans guns only in courthouses, and violation is a misdemeanor.

Norment's bill caught GOP colleagues off guard and sparked cries of betrayal from the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group. Norment later backtracked and had the bill stricken from the record.

Republicans filed several measures designed to stiffen penalties for violations of gun laws. Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, introduced bills to increase sentences for brandishing anything that even looks like a firearm at law enforcement officers, for violating a protective order while armed, and for concealing a firearm while committing a felony.

Raising mandatory minimum sentences is a route that Northam has already said he opposes, arguing that it disproportionately affects people of color.

At least one other Republican introduced bills aimed at tightening gun laws, although much more modestly than the Democratic proposals. Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, proposed a measure that would allow localities to ban firearms in buildings used for governmental purposes, as long as they also included steps such as metal detectors to keep people from sneaking in weapons.

Davis also proposed making it slightly harder to get a concealed-carry permit, eliminating the option to demonstrate competence by taking an online or video test in favor of an in-person demonstration. Davis said he has gotten pushback from the National Rifle Association and the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

Davis said he's looking for middle ground. "Gun safety and protecting the rights conveyed by the Second Amendment don't have to be mutually exclusive," said Davis, who noted that he was a competitive shooter in high school. "I think it's common sense."

Both sides of the issue have spent the past few weeks rallying public support. The NRA held a series of closed "town hall" meetings around the state, while Northam's cabinet secretaries hosted more than half a dozen "round tables."

On Monday evening, a progressive group called the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County held a town hall meeting featuring gun violence survivors — including a student who escaped last year's mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Republicans have accused Northam of trying to use the Virginia Beach shooting to rehabilitate his political image. Northam has been under a cloud since February, when a racist photo came to light from his 1984 medical school yearbook page.

He first apologized for the photo, then disavowed it but admitted wearing blackface at an event that same year. Since defying calls to resign, Northam has said he would dedicate his term in office to fighting racial disparities.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who this year began wearing a handgun on her hip on the Senate floor, called the session a "political stunt."

She said it was "a waste of taxpayer money" since the GOP-controlled legislature this year already killed gun control bills similar to what the governor is proposing.

In Capitol Square on Tuesday, some gun-toting protesters held aloft images of the photo from Northam's yearbook, which featured a person in Klan robes and another in blackface at what appeared to be a costume party. Printed atop the blown-up image was "The Man Behind the Sheet Wants Your Guns."

Democrats, many of whom called on Northam to resign earlier this year, have rallied around him over gun control, which they believe is popular among Virginians.

Northam wants the legislation to be voted on by the full House and Senate, instead of the usual practice of killing the bills in committees, but prospects seem dim.

Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, the House minority leader, said she had gotten no assurances from Republican leaders that they would allow floor votes.

"I'm hopeful," Filler-Corn said. "I commend the governor for moving forward. Doing nothing is not an option."


Photos: Special session of the Virginia General Assembly to discuss gun legislation

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