An attendee at a committee hearing in the General Assembly wears a gun in his belt. State lawmakers allow only people with concealed carry permits to bring guns into the Capitol. Guns are banned in other state office buildings. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In the month after the mass shooting in Virginia Beach that killed 12 people and injured four others, lawmakers, candidates and activists have traveled around the state talking about the best way to curb gun violence.

Gov. Ralph Northam held roundtable discussions. Moms Demand Action held listening events. And the National Rifle Association held members-only town halls with Republican lawmakers where policy conversations focused on mental health reform. 

On Tuesday, lawmakers will come back to Richmond to hash out the details of potential new gun laws, though it may be unlikely any will pass.

At the Northam roundtable in Abingdon, Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, gave a hint of what to expect when he promised Virginia Secretary of State Brian Moran he would “oppose every single thing you got.”

Republicans hold slim majorities in both chambers, giving the party the ability to block bills and determine content of the special session.

Here’s what Northam wants

When Northam called the special session, his priorities were a list of legislative items that died over a span of two days in committee or subcommittee meetings during the regular session. Little changed after his roundtable discussions. Some of the legislation for the special session has already been introduced

Northam’s wish list includes universal background checks; a ban on assault weapons, which would include suppressors and bump stocks; an extreme risk protection or red flag law; reinstating Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law; child access protection measures; required reporting of lost or stolen firearms and giving municipalities the power to regulate firearms in government buildings. 

• The red flag bill would allow judges or magistrates to bar people who appear to be in danger of hurting themselves or others from keeping or purchasing guns for 14 days. Law enforcement would hold any weapons the subject of the order owned. The order would have to be based on a history of violence and supported by an investigation by police. The subject could file a motion to dismiss the order at any point during those 14 days and the court could extend the order to six months.

•  Cities, counties and towns would be able decide whether to regulate firearms in local government buildings

In the last session, the legislation to require background checks for most gun transactions included exemptions for a number of situations, including sales between family members or antique guns. Under current law, background checks are only required for transactions with federally licensed firearms dealers. Private sellers — including vendors at gun shows who aren’t federally licensed — have the option of conducting a background check through the state police, but it is not required.

The bill to ban gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition in the past session defined an “assault firearm” as any gun that holds more than 10 rounds of ammunition. A separate bill would have banned bump stocks. (A national ban on bump stocks, which were used in the Las Vegas massacre and enable semi-automatic weapons to increase their rate of fire, went into effect in March)

The one-handgun-a-month bill reinstates a 1993 law championed by former Democratic Gov. Doug Wilder. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed the repeal of the law in 2012. Since then, Democrats have tried but failed to pass it again. Under the failed proposal, anyone purchasing more than one gun a month could do so after getting an “enhanced background check.”

• Gun owners would be required to report a lost or stolen weapon within 24 hours of realizing it was gone. (Here’s a bill on the issue that failed from the 2018 session). Law enforcement would report it to the National Crime Information Center. The legislation provided immunity for people who report the lost or stolen weapon if the weapon is used in a crime.

• Leaving a loaded gun around children under 18 would become a Class 6 felony according to a bill filed in the past session— the lowest level felony punishable by one to five years in jail or some jail time with a $2,500 fine. Right now leaving a loaded gun around a child under 14 is a misdemeanor charge.

 Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, filed a bill Sunday that would allow localities to adopt regulations around possessing, storing, carrying and transporting guns. 

One of Northam’s proposals wasn’t introduced in the regular session. Right now, only subjects of “family abuse” protective orders are prohibited from having a gun. Northam wants to block all subjects of protective orders from possessing firearms, which can include people accused of stalking, harassment and other non-physical intimidation or violence.

Northam said at an event in Radford in late June that some of his preferred proposals wouldn’t have “necessarily prevented” the shooting in Virginia Beach. But his focus is also larger than mass shootings.

During the press conference announcing the special session, he listed a number of individual incidents that happened around the same time of the Virginia Beach shooting.

“It is wrong that we now view these mass shootings as the new normal. In fact, it is wrong that we view gun violence in general as the new normal,” he said at the time.

Here’s what Republicans want

Republicans have said they want to focus on mandatory minimum sentences for violations of existing gun laws.

House and Senate Republicans are still finalizing legislative packages for the session. But one guiding principle for House Republicans will be protecting victims of gun violence, especially domestic violence victims, said Parker Slaybaugh, spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.

Republicans in both chambers are interested in reviving a bill that would have required a minimum 60-day sentence for a person’s second domestic violence charge. The bill passed both chambers with bipartisan support, but Northam vetoed it and said he wouldn’t sign any mandatory minimum sentence laws because they disproportionately affect people of color.

Instead, Northam last week suggested expanding current Virginia law to ban anyone who is the subject of a protective order from possessing firearms.

In a statement after Northam announced the special session, Cox also reiterated his party’s “ongoing efforts to strengthen the mental and behavioral health system.”

The National Rifle Association, the powerful pro-gun organization headquartered in Fairfax, has also said mental health is the real issue causing gun violence.

“None of his gun control proposals will prevent criminals from accessing firearms and committing crimes, nor would they have prevented what happened in Virginia Beach,” Chris Kopacki, the Virginia state director for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement.

“If the governor were serious about improving public safety he would address the underlying issues like our broken mental health system.”

Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, filed the first two bills of the session Wednesday: One to codify a Supreme Court decision that owning guns is an individual right and another to allow government employees, including municipal employees, with a concealed carry permit to have a weapon at work. If the agency employs armed security or has law enforcement on site, it could prohibit employees from having a concealed weapon under Cole’s bill.

How does anything get resolved? 

Though the governor triggered the special session, the General Assembly decides what direction it goes. Once lawmakers assemble, typically the first step is to get organized and get the legislators on task.

One of the first pieces of legislation typically taken up during special sessions are joint resolutions that broadly dictate what the lawmakers will focus on. During last year’s special session to finalize the budget during the Medicaid expansion debate, lawmakers agreed first to prioritize budget bills, though they gave themselves wiggle room for things like memorial resolutions, rules of procedure, the election of judges and appointments.

“The joint resolution is sort of our road map,” said House Clerk Paul Nardo. “The legislation that should be introduced should be similar to what the purpose of the governor calling us into special session is.

“But the legislative branch has the ability to do pretty much whatever it wants. He says he wants us to talk about gun violence, well one person’s gun violence is another person’s public safety, which can be interpreted a number of different ways.”

It’s also possible lawmakers will go off their road map during this session. House Republicans have already renewed calls to hold a bipartisan hearing with the two women who have accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault.

How long will this take?

Unlike regular sessions, which have to be concluded in either 45 or 60 days depending on the year, there’s not much structure around the timing of a special session. 

Because of that, if the session lasts a significant amount of time, each chamber might adjourn more often than usual while they wait for the other to complete its work. The joint resolution usually includes language requiring at least 48 hours’ notice before recessing or adjourning.

There are still two special sessions still open from 2018 — one for redistricting and one that was called for the budget and for judicial appointments. Lawmakers could opt to close the redistricting session, since the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision in the case.

The session on judicial appointments could stay open for lawmakers to make a permanent appointment to the Rockbridge County Circuit Court.

Either way, those sessions will expire in 2020. 

Other than timing and some procedural differences, special sessions are identical to regular sessions. Cox will still refer bills to committees, bills still have to be read a third time and some will get killed and others will pass to the opposite chamber.

There will still be a veto session, when the General Assembly reconvenes on the sixth Wednesday after adjournment to reconsider bills that may have been altered or vetoed by the governor.

According to the state Constitution, laws passed during the special session will become effective on the first day of the fourth month following the month of adjournment.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Contact her at [email protected]
Katie O'Connor
Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.