After a month of build-up, the Virginia General Assembly’s special session intended to look at gun violence prevention legislation lasted all of 90 minutes.
State legislators and citizen activists convened in Richmond on July 9 in response to Gov. Ralph Northam’s June 4 call for a special session after a man killed 12 people and injured four others in a mass shooting at Virginia Beach on May 31.
Bills up for consideration during the special session ranged from universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons that would include suppressors and bump stocks to mandatory minimum sentencing and funding to renovate the Virginia Beach Municipal Center building where the shooting had taken place.
However, none of those bills made it to the General Assembly floor for a vote or even a debate, since the Senate and House of Delegates both moved to adjourn until 12:00 p.m. on Nov. 18 less than two hours after the session began.
The adjournment means that lawmakers will not vote on any legislation before Election Day. All members of Virginia’s General Assembly are up for election on Nov. 5.
Instead, the bills introduced for the special session have been referred to the Virginia State Crime Commission, a bipartisan criminal justice agency under the legislative branch that studies and makes recommendations on public safety-related issues.
House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-66th) told reporters after the House adjourned that the special session had been “premature” and that a state commission should have reviewed the Virginia Beach shooting before lawmakers considered legislation.
Republicans in the General Assembly have pushed for a focus on mental health and stricter punishments for crimes, including mandatory minimum sentences, instead of the legislation on guns proposed by their Democratic counterparts.
Republican leaders continued to decry Northam’s call for a special session as political posturing to garner support for Democrats ahead of a critical election and distract from scandals involving blackface and sexual assault allegations that embroiled the governor, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring in February.
“This has not been a year in which the executive branch has distinguished itself,” Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-3rd) said as reported by WTOP’s Max Smith.
Norment caused a stir within the GOP on Monday when he filed a bill proposing a statewide ban on guns in all government buildings, a move that prompted Sen. Bill Stanley (R-20th) to briefly resign from his position as the Senate’s majority whip in protest.
The Senate majority leader announced on Tuesday that he would withdraw the bill, and the GOP caucus voted to restore Stanley to his position.
The National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action commended House and Senate Republican leaders for “renewing the focus on putting violent criminals behind bars and a much-needed re-focus on mental health initiatives.”
“Without a final report on the Virginia Beach investigation, this special session by Gov. Northam was a complete taxpayer-funded distraction,” NRA-ILA acting executive director Jason Ouimet said in a statement. “The discussion before the Virginia Crime Commission should focus on solutions that provide strong due process and puts a stop to the continued politicization of law-abiding individuals’ constitutional rights.”
Northam and other Democrats chastised Republicans for dismissing the General Assembly without taking action on the proposed gun safety legislation.
In addition to the creation of universal background checks and an assault weapons ban, Northam had urged legislators to consider red-flag laws allowing courts to temporarily remove firearms from individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others, a requirement that people report lost and stolen firearms, a one-handgun-per-month limit, child safety regulations, and an expansion of local authority to regulate guns.
According to a statement from Northam’s office, three Virginians on average die every day as a result of gun violence.
“It is shameful and disappointing that Republicans in the General Assembly refuse to do their jobs and take immediate action to save lives,” Northam said. “I expected better of them. Virginians expect better of them.”
Nearly all of the legislation proposed by Northam has been considered by the General Assembly in the past, but the bills consistently die in committee without a floor vote.
Democrats sought to galvanize public support for their efforts to anti-gun violence legislation to possibly produce a different outcome during the special session, but Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, an obstacle Democrats hope to remove in November.
Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw (D-35th) and Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie Locke (D-2nd) called the special session adjournment “a master class in cowardice” and “the single most irresponsible act” they have witnessed during their time in elected office.
“We were all elected to propose solutions to issues impacting our communities and to debate, consider, and vote on those proposals,” Saslaw and Locke said in a joint statement. “Republicans have made their unwillingness to act clear. We will make sure voters remember their negligence in November. If we can’t change their minds, we’ll change their seats.”
Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay, the Democratic nominee to chair the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, expressed frustration at the General Assembly’s inaction.
The Board of Supervisors approved a resolution introduced by McKay showing the county’s support for “common sense gun safety legislation” on June 25.
“For the thousands of Virginians killed by guns, the time has long passed for commonsense reforms,” McKay said. “It remains outrageous that Fairfax County has still not been given the ability to pass ordinances to make our community safer.”
The special session drew hundreds of activists to Richmond to express their support for or opposition to the proposed legislation on guns.
According to the Associated Press, some gun-rights advocates entered the Capitol openly wearing their guns in holsters. Others carried signs with the photo showing one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume that was found on Northam’s yearbook page on Feb. 1 and had his own party calling for his resignation until two women accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting them and Herring admitted to donning blackface in the past.
The gun violence prevention group Brady United against Gun Violence organized buses that brought more than 800 activists to the Capitol for the special session, according to Max Samis, the organization’s press secretary.
“Tommy Norment and Kirk Cox revealed themselves as nothing short of cowards,” Brady president Kris Brown said. “They refused to take even the smallest actions that would honor the victims of the Virginia Beach shooting, not to mention the victims of gun violence in Virginia every day…If these ‘leaders’ won’t enact solutions that their own constituents are demanding, then we’re going to fight tooth and nail for representatives who will.”