The Virginia General Assembly will reassemble in Richmond on July 9 for a special session to consider legislation intended to address gun violence after a Virginia Beach city employee killed 12 people on May 31.
“We must do more than give our thoughts and prayers. We must give Virginians the action they deserve,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said in an announcement on June 4. “…The pain and suffering that Virginia Beach is experiencing is the same pain communities across Virginia and around the country suffer every day due to gun violence.”
The shooter in this case was an engineer who had worked in Virginia Beach’s public utilities department for 15 years before handing in his two week’s notice the morning of the shooting, which injured at least four people in addition to the 12 fatalities.
Around 4:00 p.m. on May 31, the gunman opened fire in the Virginia Beach Municipal Center, which houses many of the city’s operations, including the sheriff’s office and police department. He was killed after an extended shootout with police.
Identified on June 1, the victims were all city employees except for one man who worked as a contractor.
As Northam noted, the shooting at Virginia Beach took place about 12 years after a Virginia Tech student killed 32 people on the Blacksburg campus on Apr. 16, 2007.
Since the Virginia Tech mass shooting, still the deadliest one at a school in U.S. history, there have been 70 mass shootings in the U.S., defined as shootings that occurred in public places and resulted in four or more people killed by the attacker, according an open-source database run by the investigative news site Mother Jones and last updated on May 31.
“It is wrong that we now view these mass shootings as the new normal,” Northam said. “In fact, it is wrong that we view gun violence in general as the new normal. Tragic mass shootings draw our attention, but shootings happen in our communities every day.”
Northam mentioned a 15-year-old boy killed in Norfolk on June 2, a girl killed at cookout in Richmond during Memorial Day weekend, and four people who were shot in Portsmouth last weekend as smaller-scale examples of how gun violence affects Virginians.
With a death rate of 11.9 for every 100,000 people, Virginia saw 1,041 people die from firearms in 2017, the most recent year with available data, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Efforts to implement legislation that would more tightly regulate the availability of firearms have largely stalled in the General Assembly in recent years, but by calling a special session, Northam evidently hopes that trend will change after the tragedy at Virginia Beach.
Proposals put forward by the governor for lawmakers’ consideration when they convene include:
• universal background checks;
• a ban on assault weapons that would include bump stocks and suppressors like the one used at Virginia Beach;
• a requirement that people report lost and stolen firearms;
• red-flag laws to authorize courts to temporarily take firearms away from an individual deemed to be a danger to themselves or other people;
• stricter penalties for leaving a loaded gun around a child;
• a limit of one handgun purchase per month;
• an expansion of local authority to regulate guns, including in government buildings.
Northam called on legislators to allow the entire General Assembly to vote on all of his proposed bills instead of allowing them to stall in subcommittees, as many of them did when put forward during the 2019 regular session.
Democratic caucus leaders in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and State Senate expressed support for the special session, noting that none of the 14 gun safety bills introduced in the Senate or the 19 bills in the House in 2019 general session reached the floor of either chamber.
“We as legislators are in office to make lives better for Virginians,” House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-41st) said. “That includes passing bills which can save lives…Doing nothing about guns is not an option.”
State officials and Democratic legislators have been hosting round tables and other events over the past week to generate support for the governor’s proposed legislation.
Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran kicked off a week-long tour of Virginia with a gun violence prevention round table at Primetime Sports Bar & Grille in Fairfax on June 14.
Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) hosted a gun safety town hall at J. Michael Lunsford Middle School in Chantilly on June 22, while Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) hosted round tables in Richmond and Fredericksburg on June 17.
State Republicans have largely expressed skepticism of Northam’s legislative proposals with Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment Jr. (R-3rd) criticizing the special session as political posturing and House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-66) arguing that the governor does not have the power to dictate what the General Assembly will consider or how it will proceed during a special session.
According to the speaker, House Republicans will consider legislation stiffening penalties for those who use firearms to commit crimes, including imposing new mandatory minimum sentences.
“We believe addressing gun violence starts with holding criminals accountable for their actions, not infringing on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Cox said. “…These steps, combined with our ongoing efforts to strengthen the mental and behavioral health system, are the best ways to keep our communities safe from those who commit violence with guns.”
In their statements, both Norment and Cox alluded to controversies that roiled Virginia’s top three leaders in February and had both Democrats and Republicans calling for Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax’s resignations.
After photos of men in blackface and wearing Ku Klux Klan costumes from Northam’s medical school yearbook page surfaced, the governor and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that they had donned blackface in the past, and Fairfax was accused of sexual assault by two different women.
House Republicans proposed using the special session to hold public hearings on the sexual assault allegations against Fairfax in a letter sent to Democrats on June 17, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Responding to the letter from Del. Rob Bell (R-58th), who chairs the House Courts of Justice Committee, Filler-Corn suggested hiring a law firm or another third party to investigate but said Democrats would not participate in Republicans’ “political games” or “turn such serious allegations into a partisan sideshow,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on Tuesday.