July 9 at 2:18 PM
RICHMOND — Barely more than 90 minutes after it convened a special session called by the Democratic governor to debate gun legislation, the GOP-controlled General Assembly abruptly adjourned without taking action, stunning hundreds of gun control activists and gun rights protesters who had packed the Capitol.
The Senate gaveled in shortly after noon and at about 1:30 p.m., voted 20 to 18 along party lines to adjourn until Nov. 18 – after a state election in which all 140 legislative seats are on the ballot.
A few minutes later, the House of Delegates followed suit. Republican leaders in both chambers said they would refer all the bills that had been proposed to the bipartisan Virginia State Crime Commission for study and recommendations.
“The call for this session was premature,” House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) told reporters moments after adjourning. He accused Northam of “an election-year stunt,” and said the topic of gun violence needs to be more thoroughly studied before taking action.
Democrats expressed surprise and outrage.
“The Republicans in this state are totally controlled—I mean 100 percent – controlled by the National Rifle Association,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who fumed in the marble hallways in the Capitol. “Anybody who doubts that, go take a look where the money is spent and go take a look at their votes.”
He struck a defiant note.
“This is far from over,” he said. “In the end, let me assure you we are going to prevail, one way or another.”
House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, who had been consulting with Republicans even after the session started about what the rules of engagement would be, was almost shaking with anger.
“Shocking,” she said. “Disturbing. But it’ll be up to the voters in November now… ”
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said Republicans had abdicated their duty. “I expected them to do what their constituents elected them to do – discuss issues and take votes,” Northam said in a statement. “An average of three Virginians die each day due to gun violence. That means hundreds of Virginians may die between today and November 18…It is shameful and disappointing that Republicans in the General Assembly refuse to do their jobs.”
Before adjourning, Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) pulled a bill he had filed on Monday that seemed to suggest Republicans might find some common ground with Democrats. His bill would have banned firearms from local government buildings around the state and make any violation a felony. State law now bans guns only in courthouses, and a violation is a misdemeanor.
But Norment faced an intense backlash from members of his own party and the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group, and moments after Tuesday’s session began, he announced he was pulling the bill.
“I do not support — nor will I support — any measure that restricts the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Norment said.
Minutes after the General Assembly adjourned, Jason Ouimet, acting executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, released a statement applauding the House and Senate Republican leadership and calling the special session “a complete taxpayer-funded distraction.”
Earlier Tuesday, armed militia members and gun control activists had swarmed the grounds and streets outside the State Capitol building.
Men in camouflage, some with holstered handguns dangling from their hips, gathered not far from a heavily female crowd wearing red “Moms Demand Action” T-shirts. Busloads of activists rolled into the city, their passengers bracing for a long day.
By 8:30 a.m. about 150 pro-gun demonstrators, several carrying assault rifles, gathered outside the white-columned building.
Jeff Squires, 57, said he wants legislators to hear firsthand from gun owners who feel under siege.
“It’s an incremental taking-away of rights,” Squires said. “There’s an agenda to take away guns, and this is how they’re doing it. I understand there’s violence. It’s not just with guns, though. It’s people with those guns.”
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) turns after speaking at a rally against gun violence held on the Virginia State Capitol grounds, in Richmond on July 9, 2019. Northam called the legislature into special session after 13 people were gunned down in a Virginia Beach mass shooting in May. (Joe Mahoney/AP)
At the nearby bell tower in Capitol Square, Gov. Ralph Northam (D), in a suit and tie despite the summer heat, addressed an hour-long peace vigil, leading several hundred people in chants of “Enough is enough!” and a call and response of “Why are we here? Votes and laws!”
When Northam ordered the special session in the wake of the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach that left 12 dead, he said he wanted “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers” to address gun violence in the state, which claimed more victims in 2018 than traffic deaths.
The governor held hands with African American community leaders, and they sang “We Shall Overcome.” He was joined by Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney (D), and the city’s police chief, schools superintendent and other officials. Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) also stood with Northam, as did state senators Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) and Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond).
Richmond NAACP President James Minor called on attendees to “support our governor” and his gun control efforts. And he sent a political message in biblical language: “If you cannot do right by the people, if you cannot do right by the children, then ye shall be removed.”
Stoney told the crowd: “There will be a day of reckoning. If not today, then it will be at the ballot box in November.”
This is a pivotal election year in Virginia. All 140 seats in the legislature are on the ballot in November, and Democrats are hoping to take control of both chambers for the first time in more than 20 years. Republicans have a 51-48 edge in the House of Delegates and a 20-19 advantage in the Senate, with one vacancy in each chamber.
That dynamic puts even more heat into the incendiary issue of gun control, which animates the base of each party. National groups, including the pro-gun NRA and the gun control groups Giffords, Everytown for Gun Safety, Brady and Moms Demand Action, have been focusing on the fight in Virginia.
Democrats filed measures, backed by Northam, aimed at reducing the availability and lethality of firearms. His priorities include a ban on devices that make guns fire faster or hold more bullets, limiting handgun purchases to one per month, instituting universal background checks and allowing courts to seize weapons from someone deemed to be a threat.
On Tuesday, activists on both sides of the issue formed a line that snaked around the Pocahontas State Office Building as they filed in to try to meet with lawmakers before the General Assembly was to convene at noon.
As the pro-gun group headed inside, several members pulled out their gun permits.
“Are you carrying?” a guard asked everyone who filed in, while the metal detector alarms rang again and again as they passed through.
Not ‘mutually exclusive’
Republicans who control the legislature have stymied gun control bills year after year and have accused Northam of trying to capitalize on tragedy for political gain.
Some thought the GOP might concede some ground in the gun debate after Norment filed his bill on Monday. But it caught GOP colleagues off guard and sparked cries of betrayal from the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group.
Several pro-gun activists on Tuesday said they were angered by Norment’s bill, calling it a misguided attempt to find compromise with Northam.
“It wouldn’t have prevented what happened in Virginia Beach,” said David Custer, 51.
More than two dozen pro-gun activists clogged the hallway outside Norment’s sixth-floor office at one point Tuesday morning. The senator was not there, so two aides stepped up to engage them.
“We feel like we were ambushed,” one man told an aide.
Outside on the sidewalk, waiting in a line that by late morning snaked around two sides of the Pocahontas building, John Wilburn fumed.
“I think it’s a backstabbing move,” said Wilburn, 41, a real estate broker who lives in Christiansburg, in the far southwest part of the state. He wore a T-shirt that read, “I carry because I care.”
He summed up legislators this way: “Some of them have character, and some of them are a squish.”
Republicans had filed several measures designed to stiffen penalties for violations of gun laws. Sen. William R. DeSteph Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) introduced bills to increase sentences for brandishing anything that even looks like a firearm at law enforcement officers, for violating a protective order while armed and for concealing a firearm while committing a felony.
Raising mandatory minimum sentences is a route that Northam already has said he opposes, arguing that it disproportionately affects people of color.
At least one other Republican introduced bills aimed at tightening gun laws, although more modestly than the Democratic proposals. Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) proposed a measure that would allow localities to ban firearms in buildings used for governmental purposes, as long as they also included steps such as metal detectors to keep people from sneaking in weapons.
Davis also proposed making it slightly harder to get a concealed-carry permit, eliminating the option to demonstrate competence by taking an online or video test in favor of an in-person demonstration. Davis said he has gotten pushback from the NRA and the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
Davis said he’s looking for middle ground. “Gun safety and protecting the rights conveyed by the Second Amendment don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” said Davis, who noted that he was a competitive shooter in high school. “I think it’s common sense.”
Both sides of the issue have spent the past few weeks rallying public support. The NRA held a series of closed “town hall” meetings around the state, while Northam’s cabinet secretaries hosted more than half a dozen “roundtables.”
Republicans have accused Northam of trying to use the Virginia Beach shooting to rehabilitate his political image. Northam has been under a cloud since February, when a racist photo came to light from his 1984 medical school yearbook page.
He first apologized for the photo, then disavowed it but admitted wearing blackface at an event that same year. Since defying calls to resign, Northam has said he would dedicate his term in office to fighting racial disparities.
Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield), who this year began wearing a handgun on her hip on the Senate floor, called the session a “political stunt.”
She said it was “a waste of taxpayer money,” given that the GOP-controlled legislature this year already killed gun control bills similar to what the governor is proposing.
In Capitol Square on Tuesday, some gun-toting protesters held aloft images of the photo from Northam’s yearbook, which featured a person in Ku Klux Klan robes and another in blackface at what appeared to be a costume party. Printed atop the blown-up image was, “The man behind the sheet wants your guns.”
Democrats, many of whom called on Northam to resign earlier this year, have rallied around him over gun control, which they believe is popular among Virginians.
Northam wants the legislation to be voted on by the full House and Senate, instead of the usual practice of killing the bills in committees, but prospects seem dim.
Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), the House minority leader, said she had gotten no assurances from Republican leaders that they would allow floor votes.
“I’m hopeful,” Filler-Corn said. “I commend the governor for moving forward. Doing nothing is not an option.”