Virginia Governor Calls Special Session for Gun Reform

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, center, shakes the hand of Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer at a news conference Friday. (Kaitlin McKeown/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced Tuesday a special legislative session this summer to push for changes to state gun laws after 12 people were killed last week in a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach government building.

“Twelve years ago, after the shooting at Virginia Tech, our commonwealth has suffered another tragedy,” Northam, a Democrat, said at a press conference Tuesday morning.

A former army doctor, the governor said he was familiar with what a bullet does to a body and was reminded of that horror during last week’s incident, the 150th mass shooting in the country this year.

“We must give Virginians the action they deserve,” he said.  

On Friday, former Virginia Beach city employee DeWayne Craddock emailed a letter of resignation and hours later walked through a Virginia Beach municipal building armed with a .45-caliber handgun and multiple extended magazines. He shot and killed a dozen of his former co-workers before being killed by police in a standoff.

Efforts to change Virginia’s gun laws have long failed to make headway under the Republican-controlled Legislature. Among failed legislation during the 2019 regular legislative session were bills that would have banned extended magazines and allowed municipalities to ban firearms in city buildings.

Northam hopes to change that during the special summer session.

“Nobody should go to church or school and wonder if they are going to come home,” he said. “That’s what our society has come to because we have failed to act on gun violence.”

Exercising his constitutional right as governor, Northam announced plans to call all Virginia legislators back to Richmond for a special session to pass measures he believes will address gun violence. He listed several, previously submitted – and failed – pieces of legislation that would include universal background checks, extreme risk protective orders, expansion of local government authority to regulate firearms, and bans on assault weapons, suppressors and bump stocks.

“I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers,” the governor said, asking lawmakers to be “second responders.”

“I want this to be the last time,” he said.

Complicating the political situation, Virginia will hold elections for all 140 House and Senate seats in November and the special session will offer a unique chance to put legislators on record with gun laws ahead of a vote that will decide which party controls each chamber.  

Both chambers have been held by Republicans for the better part of the past 20 years, but the party only holds a slim majority in the House and the Senate.

“Either some [Republicans] will need to break ranks from the party’s long-standing opposition to all gun control measures or they will be forced to oppose it uniformly in a very public spotlight just before facing voters in November,” said Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Norfolk-based Wason Center for Public Policy.

She pointed to the high number of contentious races happening this year and the geographic coincidence linked to last week’s violence.

“Several of these races are in Virginia Beach,” Bitecofer said, noting that once reliably red area of the state flipped blue during the 2018 midterms.

A 2018 State of the Commonwealth survey conducted by Bitecofer’s organization showed broad support for gun-control measures, with 84% of Virginians supporting closing the so-called “gun show loophole,” which allows for nearly untraceable sales of firearms at private events. A ban on assault weapons was supported by 65% of respondents.

House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat representing Fairfax County, rounded out Tuesday morning’s press conference with a call to state Republicans to change their ways.

“When it comes to guns, doing nothing is not an option,” she said. “As we’ve done many times, I’m asking members across the aisle to come together, to do something.”   

But as long as Republicans control both the House and Senate, they decide which bills make it out of subcommittees. That’s where much of the past gun-related legislation met its end, long before getting the chance for a full floor vote.

But Northam hopes that won’t happen this time.

“Let this legislation get to the floor,” the governor said. “Let the officials who were elected by Virginians to come and vote.”

Shortly after Northam’s press conference, Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw said Senate Democrats will resubmit 14 bills during the special session, many of which mirror the governor’s requests.

“This cannot be the new normal. We can do better. And it is passed time to act,” Saslaw said in a statement.

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