gun violence

Northam Calls Special Session for Gun-Safety Bills in Wake of Virginia Beach Massacre

Virginia governor Ralph Northam calls his legislature into a special session on gun safety. Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images

It’s unclear whether Virginia will do anything practical on the gun-control front in the wake of last week’s horrendous massacre of public employees (and one bystander) in Virginia Beach. But Democratic governor Ralph Northam intends to hold some feet to the fire in a special session that will challenge the Republicans who control the legislature to abandon their traditional position of opposing any and all gun-safety measures, as the Washington Post reports:

“We must do more than give our thoughts and prayers,” said Northam, who intends to bring lawmakers back to Richmond at the end of June. “We must give Virginians the action they deserve.”

Northam was joined by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, all Democrats, at a news conference with 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.”

According to Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot, Northam plans to reintroduce gun-safety measures the legislature has defeated in the past:

Northam said he wants to see laws passed that are similar to a legislative package he proposed in January. He called for reinstating the one-handgun-a-month law — repealed in 2012 — and allowing prosecutors or police officers to ask the court to issue an emergency substantial risk order to stop someone who poses a risk of injury to themselves or others from purchasing, possessing or transporting a gun.

He also called for universal background checks, requiring lost or stolen handguns to be reported within 24 hours, and banning the sale, purchase, possession and transport of assault firearms.

Most of those bills — carried by Democrats — failed this year, as they traditionally have under a Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Additional discussion could revolve around another failed effort in Virginia to ban large-capacity magazines (like the Virginia Beach killer apparently used) and perhaps a new focus on silencers (which he also used).

Virginia’s powerful gun lobby, of course, opposes all these measures on grounds that arming potential victims to the teeth and encouraging shoot-outs is the best way to save lives.

But their faithful servants in the Virginia GOP are reacting with caution to Northam’s challenge, notes the Post:

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 …

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.”

So don’t expect a lot of action on gun safety. It didn’t happen in Virginia after its previous mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007:

After the Virginia Tech slayings, then the worst mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history, gun-control advocates led by then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D), now a U.S. senator, pushed hard to change some laws. The centerpiece of his package was a proposal to require gun sellers to conduct background checks on all buyers at gun shows.

Instead, with GOP support, the legislature lowered the standard under which a mentally ill person can be forced into treatment, and expanded the criteria under which a mentally ill person can be barred from buying or owning guns. It also boosted funding by $42 million for community-based mental health treatment.

The partisan politics of this issue are impossible to avoid, as was made evident when Northam was joined by Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring and an assortment of Democratic legislators for his special-session announcement. Every seat in both chambers of the Virginia legislature is up this November, with Republicans holding a two-seat margin in each. After a strong showing in state elections in 2017 and then in the 2018 midterms, Democrats had been looking forward to a signal opportunity to flip the legislature this fall and give their party control over the decennial redistricting process in this competitive state.

But a bizarre set of scandals involving Northam and Herring (charged with appearing in blackface in their younger days) and Fairfax (accused of sexual assault) have thrown Virginia Democrats back on their heels. With none of their three leaders yielding to pressure to resign, it has been unclear how the Donkey Party would regain its momentum. The special session may be a good place to start.

VA Governor Calls Special Session for Gun-Safety Bills