Virginia Special Session on Gun Reform Killed by GOP

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Just hours after it began, Republican lawmakers in Virginia voted Tuesday to shut down a special legislative session to address gun laws and postponed any action on reform bills until after statewide elections in November.

A collection of firearms on display at the Colonial Shooting Academy in Richmond, Va., on Monday. (CNS Photo/Brad Kutner)

Democratic Governor Ralph Northam called the special summer session in the wake of a May 31 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that claimed 12 lives.

But the Republican majority in both legislative chambers voted Tuesday to adjourn the session until Nov. 18, two weeks after the Nov. 5 general election, in which all of the state’s 140 legislative seats are up for grabs.

Northam had called “for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers,” when he announced the special session in early June.

He said in a statement Tuesday that “Virginians expected better of” their state lawmakers.

“It is shameful and disappointing that Republicans in the General Assembly refuse to do their jobs, and take immediate action to save lives,” the governor said, pointing to the estimated 1,100 Virginians who die each year from gun violence.

Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Virginia Democratic Party, promised the post-election legislative session would be the last the GOP would be in power.

“Republican Senators and Delegates showed today they are cowards who could give a damn about keeping Virginians safe from gun violence,” Swecker said in a statement. “They ran away from their jobs at a time when Virginians needed them most.”

But the Virginia Republican Party pointed the finger at Democrats, saying Northam chose “to politicize a terrible tragedy in a desperate effort to revive the Virginia Democrats.”

“The special session called today was a political stunt and not much more,” the state GOP tweeted Tuesday afternoon.

The bills that had been submitted will now be sent to committees, where no recorded vote will be held.

Democratic Delegate Mark Levine represents one of the state’s liberal districts, which includes parts of Alexandria and Arlington County, and proposed a comprehensive bill that would ban assault weapons and silencers as well as bump-stocks, the rapid-fire gun attachment that was used in the 2017 slaughter of 58 Las Vegas concertgoers.

“It bans the kinds of weapons that have been used to kill a lot of people really quick, without banning the guns used by ordinary hunters across Virginia,” Levine said in a phone interview.

Delegate Jeion Ward, a Democrat from the coastal area of Hampton Roads, pitched a return to the state’s one-gun-a-month law, which limits handgun purchases to one per person every 30 days. It was repealed in 2012.

This is an area where Ward and Northam may have received some support from traditional Second Amendment advocates, including Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Foundation.

While Schrad hasn’t yet seen Ward’s bill, she was around when the limit was initially passed in 1993.

“It was beneficial during its time,” she said in a phone interview. “If they can build a case that wouldn’t violate someone’s Second Amendment rights, we’d be interested in seeing it.”

Other legislative priorities for Governor Northam included expanding background checks, creating more liberal extreme risk protective order laws, and expanding local authority to regulate firearms, including in government buildings.

While police groups like Schrad’s may have supported empowering local governments to regulate firearms, gun rights groups were ready to push back.

Catherine Mortensen is a National Rifle Association spokesperson who addressed the media at a silencer demonstration held Monday at a Richmond-area firing range. The NRA is unwavering in its opposition to all of Northam’s goals, which Mortensen referred to as “gun control schemes.”

She said extreme risk protective orders, which aim to remove guns from those who are believed to pose an imminent threat of violence, violates due process rights.

Mortensen also said expanding punishments for those who allow guns to fall into the hands of children makes it “harder for law abiding citizens to defend themselves,” and giving municipalities the right to govern their own gun laws would create “a confusing patchwork of laws.”

Andrew Goddard is the legislative director for the Virginia Center for Public Safety, a nonpartisan group that aims to support what it believes are reasonable gun laws that offer a mix between protecting gun rights while also addressing holes in the system.

Goddard has a personal stake in the fight, as his son Colin was among those shot during the state’s first modern mass shooting – the 2007 Virginia Tech incident that saw 32 people killed and 17 others injured.

Colin was shot four times but survived, though he has bullet remnants still lodged in his body that have caused lead poisoning problems 12 years later.

“They’d have to make hamburger out of him to get the pieces out,” Goddard said in a phone interview.

He said he’s frustrated by the reality that gun laws would face in the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature.

“This is not a subject that discriminates between conservatives and liberals, it’s something we all have to face,” he said.

But the GOP’s grip on the Legislature could be slipping after the U.S. Supreme Court kept in place court-drawn maps that favor Democrats. While some thought the special session would give endangered Republicans a chance to win over their changing districts, that opportunity is now gone.

Virginia voters have been showing more support for stricter gun laws since first polled by the Norfolk-area Wason Center for Public Policy in 2016. Researchers recently found “a slight majority of Virginia voters said it is more important to control who owns guns than to protect gun ownership rights.”

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