Eve Levenson leads chants in support of tighter gun laws in front of the Capitol on July 9, 2019, as lawmakers entered for a special session that lasted 90 minutes and adjourned with no debate until Nov. 18. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Huge crowds of advocates on both sides of the gun debate crammed into the Capitol on Tuesday, one heavily armed with rifles and pistols and the other wearing red T-shirts and ready with a string of chants.

Both left surprised when a special session to take up gun legislation following the mass shooting in Virginia Beach concluded about 90 minutes after it began with no bills considered, heard or otherwise discussed.

An abrupt ending followed by a promised study

After a handful of speeches and a brief debate over the rules that would govern the session, Republican majorities in the House and the Senate voted to adjourn until Nov. 18 – two weeks after the General Election in which every House and Senate seat will be up for election.

Democrats, who had pressed Republicans to hold floor votes on legislation, appeared caught off guard, but their attempts to protest the move were shut down in both chambers on procedural grounds.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, talk to reporters Tuesday following the abrupt adjournment of the special session called by the governor on gun violence. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

“Did I hear correct that the date was Nov. 18?” Democratic Caucus Chair Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria asked on the floor.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, told reporters at a joint news conference that all the legislation filed during the special session would be referred to the State Crime Commission, which has agreed to conduct “a systemic review of the events that occurred in Virginia Beach and proposed legislative changes to Virginia’s laws concerning firearms and public safety.”

They blamed Gov. Ralph Northam, who called the special session days after the Virginia Beach shooting, for not taking a more deliberate approach, citing the commission then-Gov. Tim Kaine established to develop recommendations after the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

“Because the governor failed to establish a blue ribbon commission, the Crime Commission will undertake this responsibility,” Norment said.

‘Shameful and disappointing’

Democrats were furious. House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, was “almost shaking,” according to The Washington Post, which reported her response as “shocked.”

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stern statement: “It is shameful and disappointing that Republicans in the General Assembly refuse to do their jobs, and take immediate action to save lives,” he said. “I expected better of them. Virginians expect better of them.”

Democrats dismissed the idea that longstanding legislative proposals for things like universal background checks, red flag laws and allowing local governments to ban guns in municipal buildings required a study.

Hundreds of advocates filled Capitol Square ahead of the special session Tuesday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“The bills themselves are no longer in concept, they’re policy issues up and down,” said Northam’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, who served in the legislature for 13 years and was a member of the commission.

In his experience, the crime commission has helped lawmakers turn ideas into legislation by working on technical language. Most of the legislation proposed by the Democrats has already been through that process, Moran said. He pointed to the legislation to reinstate Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month rule, which was put into law in the early 1990s and repealed in 2012.

“The crime commission doesn’t need to study that,” Moran said.

GOP leader drops gun bill after caucus revolt

The pro-gun side came in expecting a fight, particularly after catching wind of legislation filed by Norment that would have banned guns in municipal buildings around the state.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League sent an email to its supporters just before 1 a.m. with the subject line: “Senator Tommy Norment stabs gun owners in the back!”

Philip Van Cleave, the group’s president, said the organization put major pressure on Norment.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League handed out pro-gun stickers on Capitol Square. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“We sent about 6,000 people his way,” Van Cleave said.

It all turned out to be a confusing charade that fell apart when the GOP whip in the Senate, Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, threatened to resign his leadership post over the proposal.

The caucus refused to accept Stanely’s resignation and Norment later said he had only filed the bill in an attempt to catch Democrats in a political trap. He noted that the way it was drafted would have blocked police officers from carrying guns in their stations.

“In this theater of politics, I had some Machiavellian thoughts,” said Norment, who has a history of voting for legislation he opposes to make political points. “I thought perhaps the administration might bite on that.”

A delegate touched by violence pushes back on good-guy theory

In conversation after conversation, opponents of legislation limiting where guns can be carried cited the good-guy theory of violence prevention.

“Gun-free zones equal murder zones,” said Brandon Howard, a Hopewell resident carrying a large rifle in front of the Capitol. “If you have a gun-free zone, the only way you have to defend yourselves is none. The only way you’re going to stop a person with a gun is with a gun.”

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Roanoke, pushed back hard on that narrative an emotional floor speech recalling the on-air murder of his girlfriend, WDBJ reporter Alison Parker, and her co-worker Adam Ward. He described a recent conversation with a gun advocate who told him that if he had been there or she had been armed it might not have happened.

“I had to cut him off,” Hurst said. “That ‘what if’ has tormented me from the day I personally became impacted by gun violence. … What if I had been there. We hear these faux attempts at masculinity every time there’s an act of violence or a vigilante thinks he could be that marksman shot in a crisis. …

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, speaks on the House floor Tuesday. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

“The duty falls on us here in this body to protect the citizens of this commonwealth. To protect the citizens of this commonwealth. To shift the responsibility from teachers, clergy, lovers, fathers and mothers and put it all back on them is not the social contract I signed up for.”

The speech drew loud applause from his fellow Democrats. In the gallery, a man wearing a shirt that read “Gun control is bullshit” responded by repeatedly shouting, “You’re full of baloney.”

Analysts say Democrats may have left with upper hand

Even though legislation didn’t go anywhere, Democrats still may have come out on top because the session was set up to be a win for Democrats no matter what happened, said Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

“Either the Republicans come to the table and do something about gun control or they don’t and Democrats would have a really hot-ticket item they could go back and campaign on this fall in these competitive districts they’re hoping to win,” Bitecofer said.

All 140 seats in the General Assembly as up for reelection in November.

Many rally attendees carried guns, which are allowed on Capitol Square and within the Capitol building itself with a concealed carry permit. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Many Republican lawmakers are in safe red districts, lessening the importance of changing their stances against gun control. But those who are in more competitive districts — including many of the Republicans in Virginia Beach and Cox — needed to make some effort in the special session, Bitecofer said.

“They needed something alternative to focus on, they couldn’t come and kill all the gun control bills and go home,” she said. “You don’t want to come up (to Richmond) in the limelight and be obstructionist when the community’s hurting.”

She said most of the Republican’s proposed legislation is about guns, but isn’t necessarily gun control.

“It’s something to talk about, but they’re going to get hammered by the Democratic opposition,” she said. “Their opponents will make their inaction a huge focus during campaigns.”

Editor Robert Zullo contributed.

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Ned Oliver
Ned, a Lexington native, has a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, 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 also has the awards to show for it, including taking a pair of first-place honors at the Virginia Press Association awards earlier this year for investigative reporting and feature writing. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. Contact him at [email protected]
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]