Northam pushes GOP on gun control, but some advocates see little hope for special session

By: - June 4, 2019 2:54 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam, shown with Attorney General Mark Herring and Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, far right, in 2019. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam is urging Republicans in the General Assembly to reconsider their stalwart opposition to gun control measures following a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, announcing Tuesday he’ll convene a special session of the General Assembly to consider a package of reforms.

But so far GOP lawmakers have shown no signs that they’re likely to bend on the issue and some advocates expressed little hope for action.

“If Newtown didn’t do it, if Virginia Tech didn’t do it — you know, these are some very intransigent people,” said Andrew Goddard, who dedicated himself to advocating for gun safety laws after his son was shot during the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, which left 32 dead.

Northam’s proposals include a ban on high capacity magazines and allowing local governments to prohibit guns in municipal buildings, both of which he said directly address the circumstances of the attack at the city offices in Virginia Beach in which the shooter, a city employee, used extended magazines and a sound suppressor.

“I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers,” Northam said.

At this point, the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Tommy Norment, has said none of the gun control legislation backed by Democrats would have done anything to change the course of the shooting in Virginia Beach and that he stands by his votes earlier this year against identical legislation. He notes that Virginia Beach already has a carve out in state code to ban carrying a magazine loaded with more than 20 rounds.

Over in the House, Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said Northam’s special session “is more likely to inflame political tensions than produce substantive public policy changes that will keep people safe.”

In a statement, Cox appeared to needle Northam, saying his caucus would use the time to focus on legislation stiffening penalties for gun violence “with tougher sentences – including mandatory minimums.” Northam announced just one month ago that for the remainder of his term he would veto any legislation that included mandatory minimum sentences, a stance he framed as an issue of equity and racial justice.

Northam, administration officials and Democratic lawmakers say they nonetheless remain hopeful, citing the potential for increased public pressure for action following the tragedy in Virginia Beach, which left 12 people dead.

Northam’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, noted that Republican lawmakers in Florida passed a package of legislation in the month after the slaying at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that imposed a three-day waiting period to purchase most guns and raised the age to buy a firearm to 21.

“We hope we would have a similar experience here in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Moran said.

Andrew Goddard, whose son was shot in the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, listens as Gov. Ralph Northam outlines his call for a special session of the General Assembly to consider gun control legislation. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Northam laid out a list of legislative priorities that mirrored bills that have been proposed and rejected nearly every session since the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, most recently in January. They include:

  • universal background checks
  • a ban on assault weapons, to include suppressors and bump stocks, though what qualifies as an assault weapon was not defined.
  • an extreme risk protective order, sometimes called a “red flag” law
  • reinstating the one-gun-a-month law
  • requiring people to report lost and stolen firearms
  • expanding local authority to regulate firearms, including in government buildings

Northam specifically urged Republican leaders to allow full votes on the measures on the floor of the House and Senate, though he has no authority over how lawmakers conduct the session once he has called it. (They theoretically could gavel in and gavel out without any discussion.)

Gun control legislation rarely makes it to the floor of either chamber and is instead voted down in Republican-controlled subcommittees, shielding more politically vulnerable members of the caucus from potentially thorny votes.

When gun-related legislation makes it out of committee, it’s generally to loosen restrictions, particularly in the Senate, which this year passed bills to eliminate a ban on guns in churches and allow EMTs and firefighters to carry weapons.

Goddard, the legislative director at the Virginia Center for Public Safety, believes proposals such as universal background checks, which polls show are supported by a wide majority of state residents, would pass if given a full vote. But he says there’s little reason to expect them to get there as long as Republicans hold a majority and continue to appoint the same lawmakers to vet the legislation on six-person panels.

“It comes down to who’s on the subcommittee,” Goddard said. “If we didn’t have four NRA stalwarts on that subcommittee, we would have bills that have come out of the House.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.