Democrats and Republicans split over gun violence prevention after Virginia Beach shooting

RICHMOND, Va. -- Four days after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) called for a special session of the General Assembly in order for state lawmakers to address gun violence.  

While the details of the session are still being worked out, it appears Virginia Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas on what measures to take up, leading some to wonder if anything will get done.

Both the Governor’s Office and Republican leaders said they expect the session will occur later in the month, but no timetable has been set at this point.

During his announcement Tuesday at the Patrick Henry building at the state capitol, Northam praised first responders in Virginia Beach for rushing into the scene moments after shots rang out. The governor called state lawmakers “second responders,” and Northam said they need to rush back to Richmond to pass measures to prevent gun violence in all Virginia communities.

"Your duty is clear: rush to the scene and put a stop to this violence. Heal our Commonwealth,” Northam said to lawmakers. "The pain and suffering that Virginia Beach is experiencing is the same pain communities across Virginia and the country suffer every day due to gun violence.”

Northam and Democrats plan to reintroduce many of the gun laws he tried to pass earlier this year.

Those gun laws include:

  • Universal background checks
  • A ban on assault weapons, to include suppressors and bump stocks;
  • An extreme risk protective order
  • Reinstating the one-gun-a-month law
  • Child access prevention
  • Requiring people to report lost and stolen firearms
  • Expanding local authority to regulate firearms, including in government buildings.

The governor urged Virginia lawmakers to allow the proposed gun laws to go before the entire General Assembly for a vote and not kill them in a small subcommittees. Over the past several years, similar bills have been voted down at early morning meetings during the session, which drew praise from gun rights groups and anger from gun control activists.

"Business as usual, with leadership shielding most of their members from taking tough votes by setting early morning hearings before small subcommittees, won't cut it. Virginians deserve leadership, and they will be watching. The nation will be watching," he said. "I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers."

Speaker of the House Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said he first heard from Northam about an hour before his press conference. Speaker Cox said he plans to give Northam's proposals a "fair hearing" but said Republicans have their own ideas for preventing gun violence.

Cox said GOP lawmakers will look to introduce bills requiring mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes and address mental health issues.

Specifically, the speaker pointed to a bill that would have required a 60-day jail sentence for anyone who is convicted of assaulting a family member if the suspect has a previous domestic violence conviction. Northam vetoed the bill in April.

"We will hold a special session, we will put forward legislation we think will move the needle," Cox said. "I would ask the Governor then, is he going forgo his veto power things like mandatory minimums?  Is he going to change his stance and alter his process?"

House minority leader Del. Eileen FIller-Corn (D-Springfield) called the speaker's comments on mandatory minimums "disappointing."

"This special session is about saving lives, and it is shameful for House Republicans to use this valuable opportunity to play political games," Del. Filler-Corn said in a statement. "Virginians have made it clear they want to see meaningful action to prevent gun violence, including measures such as universal background checks."

Senate majority leaders Tommy Norment (R-James City County) said Northam's call for a special session feels rushed but that the General Assembly will carry out their obligations.

“By calling the General Assembly into special session absent a specific plan or legislative package that hasn’t already been considered, the Governor’s actions today are in stark contrast to the deliberative approach employed by then-Governor Kaine after the murders at Virginia Tech. Disappointingly, this governor has opted for political posturing over solutions," Norment said in a statement.

Virginia activists on both sides of the gun debate are already digging in.

"This is all politics. It’s got nothing to do with saving lives.  In fact, I feel like they are dancing in the blood of dead people to do this quite frankly," said Philip Van Cleave, President of the Virginia Citizen's Defense League, of Northam. "It doesn’t make things safer. If you make a false assumption, you can prove anything, and the assumption is it makes us safer. Criminals don’t go through background checks."

"It’s hard for the families to have to relive these things, but it’s even harder for the families going through it right now," said Lori Haas, whose daughter was shot and survived the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007 and is now the Virginia Director of The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. "It’s their job to make laws. It’s not their job to say, 'Oh they might speed, we’re not going to have speed limits.'"

Jamilah Graham, who lives in Richmond, said she does not feel that new laws will prevent mass shootings like the one in Virginia Beach.

"It's really got to do with mental health, I think," Graham said. "There’s just a thin line about ownership and it getting in the wrong hands of the wrong people."

Meanwhile, Dan Jobe said new laws may not have stopped the Virginia Beach shooter, but he said lawmakers need to try something new.

"I don’t think there is anything that could happen short term. These pieces of legislation have to get into the system, get to work before we really see results." Jobe said. "But we can’t do nothing. This country has way more mass shootings than anywhere else in the world."

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