Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday he will summon lawmakers back to the state Capitol to consider a package of gun control legislation, saying last week’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach calls for “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers.”
Northam, a Democrat confronted with a Republican-controlled General Assembly in the middle of an election year, also said he wants every legislator to go on record for or against his proposals during the special session this summer, rather than avoid tough votes by quietly killing the bills in subcommittees.
“The nation will be watching,” the governor said, four days after Virginia Beach employee DeWayne Craddock used two semiautomatic handguns, a silencer and extended ammunition magazines to slaughter 12 people at a municipal building. Craddock was then killed in a gun battle with police.
Northam’s bills include a ban on silencers and high-capacity magazines, as well as a broadening of local governments’ ability to limit guns in city buildings. The governor said he also wants mandatory, universal background checks before gun purchases; a limit of one handgun purchase per month; and a “red flag” law that would allow authorities to seize the weapons of those who are a threat to themselves or others.
“I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers,” he said.
In a statement, GOP Speaker Kirk Cox dismissed the governor’s call for a special session as “hasty and suspect when considered against the backdrop of the last few months” — a reference to the blackface-photo scandal that nearly destroyed Northam’s career.
Cox said the Republicans will instead put forward legislation to toughen penalties — including new, mandatory minimum sentences — for those who use guns to commit crimes.
“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.
Another top Republican, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, indicated some willingness to debate a ban on large-capacity magazines, according to the Virginia Gazette, but told gun-control advocates outside his office that “nothing would have helped us in Virginia Beach.”
Virginia is generally considered a very gun-friendly state and is home to the National Rifle Assn.'s headquarters.
After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a student with a history of mental problems shot 32 people to death, the state passed a law prohibiting people adjudicated as seriously mentally ill from buying a gun. But a push at the time for universal background checks failed.
Most of the other legislation proposed this time also fell short before in Virginia, where Republicans hold slim majorities in the House and Senate. All 140 legislative seats are up for grabs this year, and Democrats are thought to have a realistic chance of taking back control of the General Assembly.
Northam got a standing ovation from gun-control advocates, state workers and elected officials as he said the massacre in Virginia Beach demands that lawmakers put saving lives ahead of party loyalty.
Noting that first responders saved lives in last week’s attack, he said: “Now, I’m calling on the elected officials of this commonwealth to become second responders. Your duty is clear: Rush to the scene and put a stop to this violence.”
“Show Virginians that it doesn’t matter what party you are in, we all are Virginians first, and we care about the safety and security of every Virginian,” he added.
The governor has long advocated stricter gun control and gets an F grade from the NRA. He made the issue a top priority of his 2017 campaign, drawing from his experience as a pediatrician and Army doctor who has treated children and soldiers wounded by gunfire.
Craddock appeared to have had no felony record and is believed to have legally purchased his two .45-caliber pistols, authorities said.
Friday’s shooting has been Northam’s first major test since a scandal over a racist photo in his medical school yearbook nearly drove him from office four months ago. Northam denied that he was in the picture of someone in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
A top gun-rights advocate, Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, denounced the special session as “political theater” and said the answer is to make it easier for people to carry weapons.
“There’s really nothing other than allowing people to protect themselves until the police get there that would have worked,” he said.