Lawmakers are returning to Richmond on Tuesday for a special session called by Gov. Ralph Northam to take up gun-related measures in the wake of a shooting in Virginia Beach a month ago.
Republicans, who command a slim majority in the House of Delegates and Senate, are aiming to fend off several gun control proposals backed by Northam, a Democrat, who is asking for action after a gunman opened fire at a municipal building, killing 12 people, on May 31.
“This is something Virginians are asking for,” Northam said last week in Roanoke. “We’ve had so much gun violence in this commonwealth, enough is enough. We appreciate the thoughts and prayers, but I’m bringing legislators back on Tuesday, and I want votes and laws.”
Virginia has a strong gun culture — the National Rifle Association has its headquarters in Fairfax County — and some of the nation’s most lenient firearms laws. But with a surge in state legislatures passing gun control measures in recent years, Northam spotted an opportunity to put a spotlight on the issue.
“From a political standpoint, this is really smart of Gov. Northam,” said William Pelfrey Jr., a professor in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. “We’ve seen a lot of states and incidents where mass shootings have occurred, and there’s been outcry of waiting for a proper length of time and until families have had time to grieve and then move on to legislation. Historically that has produced nothing. Waiting leads to diminished momentum, so I think the governor is trying to seize the momentum associated with the Virginia Beach shooting.”
Democrats are expected to file a suite of proposals such as universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, requiring people to report lost and stolen firearms, and tougher penalties when firearms are left in the presence of minors. Northam is also interested in legislation expanding local authority to regulate firearms, such as in government buildings. He also wants extreme risk protection orders to allow a police officer or prosecutor to petition a judge for a warrant to seize legally owned guns if someone is determined to b\e an immediate threat to themselves or others.
“The people are demanding that we do something,” said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who up until a couple years ago was the last remaining pro-gun Democrat in the Senate. He said the routine large-scale gun violence nationwide and the Republican Party in hock to the NRA contributed to his shift to support gun control.
Meanwhile, Republicans plan to put forth legislation to impose tougher penalties — including mandatory minimums — against offenders. Northam has vowed not to sign any more mandatory minimum legislation for the remainder of his term.
Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, has filed two bills. One would allow local government employees to carry a concealed weapon at work if they have a concealed handgun permit. The other would codify the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which established a constitutional right to own a gun for self-defense.
“I think there is some low-hanging fruit where there is potential for agreement,” Pelfrey said.
He pointed to Northam’s proposal to ban bump stocks, which are devices that make semi-automatic rifles fire faster. After the 2017 Las Vegas shooting the Trump administration issued a regulation through the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms against the devices. The ruling has prompted lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the decision, and future presidential administrations could rescind it.
Gun control advocates have seen some victories in other states in recent years, especially after the shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school last year. In Virginia, in the years following the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shootings, gun rights, not restrictions, grew stronger.
The Virginia Tech shootings, in which 32 students and staff were shot to death by a gunman who killed himself, led to an enhancement of mental health restrictions related to the purchase of firearms and to improvement of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. But a Republican sweep of statewide offices and GOP domination in the legislature became favorable to gun-rights supporters at the Capitol starting in 2010. In 2012, then-Gov. Bob McDonnell successfully pushed the repeal of the one-handgun-a-month law that Gov. Doug Wilder, a Democrat, enacted in 1993 to stem the illegal flow of firearms to the northeast by straw purchases in Virginia. Northam wants to reinstate that law.
Gun rights and gun control advocates are expected to show up at the General Assembly in droves for rallies and to lobby legislators. The Virginia Citizens Defense League and the National Rifle Association have put out calls for members to show up. Brady, the nation’s oldest gun violence prevention advocacy group, is providing buses for people to come.
Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea plans to attend the special session to push for the legislature to allow localities to ban guns and ammunition inside government buildings.
Lea, who serves on the Virginia Parole Board, has long been vocal about Roanoke’s struggle with gun violence. In the last four years, more than 200 people have been maliciously shot in the city, according to police data.
“I want to do what I can and let people know this is not just a Norfolk and Richmond problem, but a problem going on out here,” Lea said.
Northam wants all of the legislation to go to full floor votes in the House and Senate, which is unlikely to happen. Republicans hold a 20-19 majority in the Senate and 51-48 majority in the House of Delegates. Gun control bills historically have died in committees.
Pelfrey believes Northam is trying to force a public debate on gun control, which he said “will provide leverage” to both parties this November election. All 140 seats of the General Assembly are up for election and Democrats are hoping to flip both chambers. Republicans have expressed skepticism about what is truly motivating Northam to call the special session. Republicans have continued to keep attention on Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook with a photo of a man in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
“It’s not designed to be effective to the problem we have in Virginia and the world and the United States,” Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell said of Northam’s proposals. “It’s designed as a political stunt, it’s designed to change the dialogue, the conversation that’s been coming out of Richmond lately.”
Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, worried the special session would “further divide us, rather than result in sound policy that we all hope to achieve.”
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, fresh off a victory in a primary during which his opponent questioned his dedication to protecting gun rights, told constituents in a message he would “remain an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment.”
“I believe Virginia can continue to be a leader to the nation, particularly on how we handle issues that impact personal safety, the safety of our family and friends, and our constitutional rights as U.S. citizens,” Hanger wrote. “I also believe we should be a stellar example to the nation, and maybe more importantly our children and grandchildren, on how we go about discussing divisive issues such as our gun laws.”