VIRGINIA BEACH — The day of the municipal building mass shooting, Republican Del. Barry Knight, who grew up in Virginia Beach and currently represents part of the city, was at a friend’s memorial service when the city manager contacted him to tell him six people had been killed.
By the end of the shooter’s rampage, 13 would be dead, including the gunman, and four more hospitalized.
“I could not believe it,” Knight said. “I was a little bit beyond belief. I sat there and said, ‘What do I do? What do I do?”
He delivered opening remarks at a 4-H show and sale near his farm in the southern part of the city because the city’s director of agriculture was at the Municipal Center, still on lockdown.
He encouraged attendees to pray.
“We’re a very big city but we’re still a small community, we all help each other,” he said.
Knight knew one of the victims, but declined to say which one. He’s visited the memorial residents created at the Municipal Center twice, he said. He and the three other Republican delegates from the city — Chris Stolle, Glenn Davis and Jason Miyares — skipped a House GOP retreat over the weekend. They wanted to stay close to home, Knight said.
“We’ve tried to keep a low profile on this situation because we think now is a time for the victims and the families and friends and all the citizens of Virginia Beach to grieve,” he said.
Virginia Beach is the state’s most populous city and its delegation in Richmond generally prefers to stay out of political fights on controversial topics.
Until now, when the deadliest mass shooting in the country so far this year, combined with Gov. Ralph Northam’s call for a special legislative session next month in its aftermath, thrusts the city into the heated gun control debate. Recent gun reform efforts have been thwarted in legislative committees by Republican majorities.
It will test the area’s moderate Republicans, some of whom are hanging on to their seats in changing districts by a thread, and the whole delegation’s ability to respond to the shaken and grieving community.
It’s hard to know how reactions to mass shootings affect voting behavior, said Quentin Kidd, political science professor at Christopher Newport University. But it’s likely the shooting will have the city’s state representatives considering how it could impact November, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for re-election.
“You may see some posturing during this special session from the Virginia Beach delegation, especially those people who are in competitive races,” Kidd said. “You may see some posturing … from candidates who aren’t in the legislature yet but want to be and they’re thinking ahead to the fall. I think that becomes especially the case if nothing substantive comes out of the session.”
So far though, the Beach’s Republicans haven’t been thinking about politics, Knight said.
“I think it’s entirely too soon right after the tragedy we had down here in Virginia Beach, where I live and lived all my life, for the governor to come in and politicize it to, in my opinion, detract from his other failings that happened in February,” said Knight, referring to Northam’s blackface scandal.
“I don’t typically show but so much passion on things but I’ve got some passion on this because I’m so close to it.”
‘I can’t do what my party wants’
One hundred miles away in Richmond, Northam and state Democrats want to “grieve and get to work” on gun control issues.
Northam called for a special session four days after the shooting. He, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Attorney General Mark Herring and Democrats from around the state implored Republican lawmakers to let gun legislation that failed during the regular session go to a floor vote.
“Business as usual, with leadership shielding their members from taking tough votes by setting early morning hearings before small subcommittees won’t cut it,” Northam said in Richmond. “Virginians deserve leadership and they will be watching. The nation will be watching.”
But Republicans are coming to the special session begrudgingly, saying it’s still too soon to “politicize” a tragedy, as Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, put it after the session was announced.
Cox said the GOP will instead push for stiffer penalties for gun crimes.
“We should not detract from our period of grief by politicizing this tragedy with a debate on gun control,” Virginia Beach Republican Sen. Bill DeSteph said in a statement. “There is a proper time to act, and a proper time to mourn. Now is our time to grieve and care for the victims and their families. We are still planning funerals. That should be our focus.”
DeSteph was one of the first lawmakers at the scene of the shooting. Since then, he has spent most of his days at the city’s emergency operations center, his staff said.
Knight said Virginia Beach’s Republican delegation agrees with Cox.
“My citizens down here seem to think that we ought to criminalize the behavior,” he said, referring to his district, which includes the rural part of Virginia Beach. “It’s the people, it’s not the guns themselves. We criminalize people for traffic accidents, we don’t criminalize the vehicle.”
Democrats may be hoping Republicans will compromise on gun control legislation, Kidd said, but could also be prepared to turn an unproductive special session into a campaign issue to energize voters.
The few Democrats that represent Virginia Beach — Dels. Cheryl Turpin and Kelly Fowler — have taken opposite approaches in preparation for the session.
Both attended a rally Friday with activists from the Moms Demand Action and March for Our Lives organizations, which support stricter gun control.
There, Turpin reminded the small group of about a dozen — mostly high school students with March for Our Lives — that there were gun laws killed during the regular session that might have made a difference in the Virginia Beach shooting: a ban on high-capacity magazines and allowing localities to decide to ban weapons from government buildings.
“Showing up today is the first step,” said Turpin, who is running for the Senate seat left open by longtime Republican Sen. Frank Wagner. “Showing up and putting pressure on my colleagues to do their jobs during the special session and vote to save lives are the next steps. If they do not, our final step will be to flip their seats in November.”
Fowler focused on allowing localities to make their own decisions on weapons bans in municipal buildings and said suppressors, which diminish the noise from gunshots, “need to be discussed.” Fowler personally thinks the devices should be banned, but said her husband, a Virginia Beach sheriff’s deputy has told her it is already difficult to get them legally.
In Virginia Beach, the shooter used a suppressor on his weapon, which made at least one person in the building at the time think the noise was coming from a nail gun.
“These people have to go back to work so that’s where my focus is,” Fowler said. “I’m not trying to avoid any of the gun policy issues … but I’m not going to turn it into other issues and I’m not going to talk about things that don’t relate to this situation. I can’t do what I want, I can’t do what my party wants, I have to do what my constituents want.”
On Thursday, Turpin hosted an event for people to make cards for a remembrance wall. Northam visited the event and spoke to the gathering of about two dozen in a wine bar.
“I would ask when is enough enough? How many more of these senseless tragedies do we have to experience before we as a society … say we need to do something,” Northam said. “It’s going to be important not only for you all, but your friends and your neighbors and anybody else that lives in Virginia to reach out to their delegates and senators.”
A few hours later, his tone was different at a city-sponsored memorial service.
“Grief is not an event, it is a process,” he said. “I once heard a very apt description that grief is like a series of waves. Those waves ebb and flow over time and sometimes they’re so powerful they can knock you down even months and years later. There will come a day when the investigations are done, when this tragedy is no longer front-page news, when many of us will be able to continue with our daily lives. But it won’t be done for those families. We need to continue to support them and be there for them.”
There is still a steady stream of visitors to a memorial at the city’s Municipal Center. Twelve crosses for each of the victims are tucked into mounds of flowers, teddy bears and other tokens of the victims: a Pittsburgh Steelers’ Terrible Towel on Missy Langer’s cross, a broken heart commemorating Mary Lou Gayle’s commitment to her family and painted seashells with each of the victims’ names.
Nearby, a different municipal building is open for absentee primary voting. And across a parking lot from that one is Building 2, still blocked off by crime tape and monitored at each corner by police officers and cars.
Volunteers from Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network have set up near the memorial to provide water, snacks and prayer to visitors, who have come from as far as New Jersey. Volunteers said they would stay there until the community didn’t need them.
They had no idea when that might be.