Virginia Governor Sets Date for Special Session on Guns

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, center, shakes the hand of Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer after giving remarks during a news conference on May 31, 2019. (Kaitlin McKeown/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A week after 12 people were shot dead by a former Virginia Beach city employee, Governor Ralph Northam said Friday that Virginia lawmakers will reconvene July 9 for a special legislative session aimed at changing state gun laws.

In a proclamation released Friday morning, Northam exercised powers granted to him by the state constitution allowing him to summon all 140 legislators back to Richmond outside of their normal two-month legislative session usually held in the first part of the year.

On Tuesday, following last Friday’s shooting, Northam warned such a session would be formally announced. At a press conference, he asked both of the state’s Republican-controlled legislative chambers to offer “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers.”

The proclamation outlines issues the governor hopes to see get addressed, including a ban on extended ammo magazines and silencers and laws allowing cities to ban firearms in municipal buildings. All three issues played a part when the Virginia Beach shooter used an extended clip handgun with a silencer to shoot his former city colleagues at their desks.

Northam also hopes to see legislators expand universal background checks and pass a ban on assault weapons.  

Similar legislation has failed year after year in subcommittees in the basement of Richmond’s legislative buildings, without full floor votes that would put legislators on record.

Northam specifically asked for the bills to get floor votes during the special session, but legislative leaders have the power to decide which bills they debate and how far they get.

To that end, shortly after Northam announced the special session earlier this week, Republican House Majority Leader Kirk Cox released a statement condemning the move as “hasty and suspect.”

Cox instead promised to increase minimum sentences for firearm offenses in addition to continuing steps already taken by the legislature “to strengthen the mental and behavioral health systems” available across the state.

“We believe addressing gun violence starts with holding criminals accountable for their actions, not infringing on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Cox said in his release.

Northam vetoed similar minimum sentencing laws passed during the regular session. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post following the vetoes, he said the freedom allotted to judges would best address criminal behavior, not minimum sentences which have a history of racial disparity.  

“Piling on mandatory minimum sentences has contributed to our growing prison population over the past few decades, to the point that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world,” the governor wrote.

Further complicating the battle over gun laws in Virginia, where the National Rifle Association holds its headquarters, is the state’s political shift from purple to blue.

Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said the special session will put GOP lawmakers in a unique bind as they fight to keep control of both legislative chambers when all 140 seats are up for grabs later this year.

“If bills get through the Legislature which tighten gun laws then Democrats will get credit for that,” Farnsworth said in a phone interview with Courthouse News. “If they do nothing then Democrats will blame Republicans for that.”

He added, “In the wake of Virginia Beach, if they refuse to do anything substantial in respect to gun control, [Republicans] might lose their thin legislative majorities in November. If that happens then those gun control measures that have been bottled up for years might pass anyway.”

The shooting has provided a distraction for Northam and other Democratic members of the state executive branch as blackface and sexual assault scandals that have rocked the party were expected to plague the left during the 2019 election cycle.

Shaun Kenney, a former executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, questioned the motive behind Northam’s special session.

“This move has nothing to do with gun control and everything to with putting his legacy back together,” Kenney said in a phone interview. “And no one has the guts to tell him that it’s gone.”  

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