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After Virginia Beach shooting, Northam outlines gun control measures he'll seek at special session

Four days after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach killed 12 people, Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday that he will call a special session of the legislature for the purpose of passing “common sense” gun laws.

Northam said he will seek measures including universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons to include suppressors and bump stocks, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and reinstating the law, repealed under Gov. Bob McDonnell, that restricted handgun purchases to one a month.

“I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers,” Northam said during a news conference at the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond.

He stressed that he will call for the measures to be put to a vote before the entire General Assembly, lamenting that many gun control measures often are defeated quietly in committees. Northam said such voting could help otherwise doomed measures clear the chambers.

Northam did not indicate when the session will take place, but spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said the governor hopes to convene lawmakers by the end of June. Yheskel said the administration is working to finalize the date. Northam does not need authorization from the GOP-controlled General Assembly to call lawmakers to Richmond.

Northam’s renewed call for gun control measures comes ahead of a key election for control of the General Assembly. Republicans now hold a slight edge in the House and the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, sought to draw a distinction between Northam and fellow Democrat Tim Kaine, who was governor in 2007 when a gunman killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech.

“By calling the General Assembly into special session absent a specific plan or legislative package that hasn’t already been considered, the governor’s actions today are in stark contrast to the deliberative approach employed by then-Governor Kaine after the murders at Virginia Tech,” Norment said in a statement. “Disappointingly, this governor has opted for political posturing over solutions.”

Kaine, now a U.S. senator, endorsed Northam’s call for a special session.

Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, termed Northam’s call for a special session “hasty and suspect” and said it is “more likely to inflame political tensions than produce substantive public policy changes that will keep people safe.”

“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.

“When the special session convenes, Republicans will put forward a package of legislation to stiffen penalties for those who use firearms to commit crimes, including mandatory minimum sentences. 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.”

The National Rifle Association responded similarly, deriding Northam for “exploiting a tragedy to push his failed political agenda,” and calling for tougher law enforcement, as well as more effective mental health services.

“The fact is that none of the governor’s gun control proposals would have prevented the horrible tragedy at Virginia Beach. If Governor Northam is genuinely interested in pursuing policies that will save lives, he should focus on prosecuting violent criminals and fixing our broken mental health system, instead of blaming Virginia’s law-abiding gun owners for the act of a deranged murderer,” said NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker.

Northam had said May 1 that he will no longer sign any legislation to impose mandatory minimum sentences because such policies are “disproportionately harming people and communities of color.”

That move was part of Northam’s efforts at rehabilitation after his administration became engulfed in scandal in February, when a blog unearthed a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. Northam initially apologized for being in the photo, then denied that he was in the image. He vowed to focus his time in office on racial equity. A McGuireWoods investigation into the photo’s origins was inconclusive.

House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, urged Republicans on Tuesday to heed Northam’s call.

“I’m asking members on the other side of the aisle to please work with us,” Filler-Corn said. “We cannot stop every shooting, but we can make it harder for those who should not have a gun to have one.”

Northam also plans to propose legislation that would set tougher penalties for leaving a loaded gun near a child, that would allow for “extreme risk” protective orders to remove guns from people deemed a risk to themselves or others, and that would require people to report stolen or lost guns within 24 hours.

Northam is also pushing for legislation to allow localities to regulate firearms within their jurisdictions — including banning them in government buildings.

The gunman in Friday’s shooting, a city employee who fired on colleagues at the Virginia Beach municipal complex, was killed in a gunbattle. The gunman used a .45-caliber handgun with extended magazines and a suppressor — also known as a silencer — to muffle firing sounds.

During Tuesday’s news conference, Northam was flanked by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, as well as Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran and many Democratic legislators. It was the first time since a series of scandals erupted in February that Northam, Fairfax and Herring have appeared together in public.

Northam urged legislators to act quickly.

“Delay only means what it always means — that there will be a next time,” Northam said.

He added: “I want this to be the last time.”

Freshman Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, learned of the shooting when people began asking her if her husband, Dave Fowler, was OK. Dave Fowler is a deputy sheriff who works in Virginia Beach’s municipal center complex where the shooting happened, but he was off work that day.

“What do we do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” the delegate said after the news conference. “To make sure that my husband can go to work at the municipal center and be safe, and all the other employees, hundreds, can feel safe and not feel like they have to worry about being shot and murdered during their day-to-day activities.”

Fowler said the argument that the shooter lawfully obtained his firearms and ammunition means there’s a need to change state laws.

“If everything was lawful, if the suppressor was lawful and it sounds exactly like a nail gun, which it does, and gives no one any warning, then that needs to change,” she said. “Although everything might have been done law-abiding … that really means we do need to go in and change the laws, honestly.”

Freshman Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, also attended the news conference. His girlfriend, Alison Parker, was shot and killed on live TV while filming a news report at Smith Mountain Lake in 2015.

He said the massacre in Virginia did not come as a surprise to him.

“How could you be surprised when we have a mass shooting every day in this country?” Hurst said after the news conference, when asked for his reaction to the Virginia Beach shooting.

“There was no surprise, there was only continued disgust, sadness, a profound grief and shame as a legislator who stands in a body that has not taken any action to try to prevent this from happening in the future.”


Henrico
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End of Ramadan
As Muslims celebrate conclusion of Ramadan in Eid celebration, growing Henrico congregations reflect on charity and community building

When Masood Ahmad left his job with Dominion Energy seven years ago to start working for a company in Saudi Arabia, there wasn’t a single formal mosque in Henrico County.

Now back in the Richmond area, Ahmad is praying and sharing meals with friends and family at the region’s newest mosque on Hungary Road in Henrico. It’s a proper place of worship for congregants of the Islamic Center of Richmond who for years held prayers and communal dinners at other local mosques and small community centers, as well as some unorthodox places, including hotels and vacant retail buildings.

“This means a lot,” said Salman Lateef, a volunteer at the new mosque. “The community’s excited about this. A long wait is over for them.”

Masjid Yusuf, the region’s newest mosque, opened in May to allow the congregation to observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan there, about a decade after county officials granted permission for its construction.

The U.S. Religion Census estimated that there were fewer than 3,000 Muslims living in the Richmond area in 2000. Its most recent estimate, which is nearly a decade old, says the Muslim population is about 12 times larger.

Zulfi Khan, a Muslim activist, said there were only two mosques in the Richmond area when he arrived here in the late 1980s: Masjid Bilal in Chimborazo and the Islamic Center of Virginia in Bon Air. Today there are about 12 congregations with their own mosques, he said.

Members of the area’s growing Muslim community say having their own place to worship and gather is a blessing and comfort, but also affords an opportunity to share their culture and become enmeshed in the greater community through outreach.

Over the holy month, several volunteers have helped coordinate food donations to the Salvation Army shelter in Richmond. In addition to fasting and abstaining from habits such as smoking during the day as a form of reflection and self-purification, followers of Islam are encouraged to perform acts of charity during Ramadan to become closer to God.

“This month is about blessings,” said Asmat Ali, a volunteer who assisted with the donations. “It’s about charity, caring for other people.”

Ahmad said those acts of service are a positive sign of his religious community’s growth and integration.

“Immigrant communities usually stick together, but this community is reaching out now,” Ahmad said. “People are serving the greater Richmond community and becoming part of its fabric.”

Several leaders said they see the opening of the mosque as another milestone for a community whose members often feel estranged from mainstream American society.

“These centers give us an opportunity to identify the real Muslim community and interact with the community and society at large,” Khan said.

After recent terrorist attacks targeting Muslims and Christians, respectively, in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, religious community leaders coordinated interfaith services to show solidarity and mourn those who were killed by extremists whose views and methods are generally reviled.

“You build a mosque, but it actually translates into a Muslim community interacting with other segments of the community,” Khan said. “Our existence has to be shown to others.”

***

Over the past month, Muslims in western Henrico have gathered at the new mosque every night to socialize and eat together after a long day of fasting.

Outside the new mosque at around 7:45 p.m. Thursday, about half an hour before sundown, a few men and several children took turns softly swinging a cricket bat at a tennis ball while waiting to snack on pineapple, watermelon and dates before settling in for the first evening prayer.

About 90 minutes later, the throngs of people who had come that evening ate dinner together at large foldout tables before going back into the mosque to pray again. After the last prayer, nearly everyone would take a cup of tea or chat with their friends some more before leaving.

Over the course of the month, different families and small groups of people took turns bringing the food each night.

“Of course we pray, but the social and charity aspect is huge,” said Noor Moghul, president of the Islamic Center of Richmond.

Moghul said that the breaking of the fast, or iftar, is important for developing friendships and a sense of community, and that it had been difficult to do that in recent years when other mosques couldn’t accommodate all the Muslims who live in the area.

“It’s been easy and comfortable for us because we have our own space that is geared toward our needs — prayer, parking and hanging out when we break the fast. This place is more suitable for us,” he said. “We’re very happy and comfortable.”

***

There is no official federal government count of the U.S. Muslim population, because the Census Bureau does not ask questions about religion. But the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, which sponsors the decennial U.S. Religious Census, estimated there were more than 35,000 Muslim adherents living in the Richmond metro area as of 2010.

Muslim community leaders here think the number has continued to grow since then, and that the addition of a new mosque still won’t be enough to give all Muslims in the area a place to pray with their community.

There are about a dozen Muslim congregations throughout the region today, but space to worship is still needed in western Henrico, Khan and other leaders said.

Another local congregation, the West End Islamic Center, recently started construction on another mosque that is expected to open within the next two years.

On Tuesday, about 5,000 people gathered at the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center to celebrate the end of Ramadan, a holiday known as Eid al-Fitr.

Members of congregations from throughout the region — represented by numerous immigrants from all around the world as well as Muslims born in the U.S., many of whom are African American — gathered together to pray before going to work or enjoying the day off.

Among the crowd were many children and teenagers, several of whom were being introduced to one another for the first time.

Above all of them, in the rafters of the athletic center, flew an American flag.

“The second generation is coming up,” Ahmad said. “Although this is my adopted country, our kids are American kids. They are American Muslims.”


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VCU students and employees can continue riding GRTC buses for free under new three-year deal

Virginia Commonwealth University students and workers will continue riding GRTC Transit System buses for free under a three-year deal that the school and company announced Tuesday.

The agreement succeeds a $1.2 million one-year arrangement that began in August to let VCU students and employees ride without paying a fare. VCU will pay GRTC $1.42 million, $1.57 million and $1.65 million in each respective year of the new deal.

GRTC officials say the VCU affiliates who make up about 12 percent of the system’s monthly ridership have helped increase overall ridership, which is up 17 percent over last year, bucking a national trend of declining mass-transit use.

Revenue from fares, however, has missed budget projections for this year.

“This longer-term agreement with VCU solidifies the great partnership we have been building over the past year,” GRTC Chairman Gary Armstrong said in a news release.

In the release, VCU’s vice president for administration, Meredith Weiss, said the continued partnership reflects a “shared commitment to the Richmond community” and contributes to the university’s goal of creating a healthy community by “improving accessibility, connectivity and mobility.”

The school’s Campus Connector transit service — connecting the Monroe Park and medical campuses — will end on July 1, according to the release. It encouraged students and employees to use the new, 7.6-mile rapid-transit Pulse bus line or Route 5 (Cary/Main/Whitcomb) to shuttle between the two locations.

Shuttle services to the school’s remote parking lots and garages will continue to operate.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said the deal will benefit the entire city.

According to the news release, the deal also requires GRTC to maintain a 10-minute schedule for the Pulse and a 15-minute schedule for Route 5. GRTC will also be adding two stops on Leigh Street near the School of Nursing and another stop at Ninth and Broad streets on Route 5.

Said Stoney: “The continued investment and partnership between GRTC and VCU is a win for the city of Richmond that will improve social and economic mobility for residents, students and visitors alike.”

A few GRTC officials earlier this year speculated that the higher-than-expected use by VCU affiliates and fare evasion are potential causes for the company’s revenue shortfall through the year.

Board member Ben Campbell said in an interview Tuesday that GRTC staff members recently determined that the amount VCU will pay is about equal to how much VCU riders would pay if the university didn’t subsidize the fares.

The payment, he said, is based on data the transit system has been able to collect over the last year, rather than speculative estimates from before the pilot program began.

“We didn’t really have that before,” Campbell said.

The GRTC board of directors is expected to vote this month on adopting a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.


Local
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Henrico-based printing company Colortree Group abruptly closes, laying off about 240 employees

The Henrico County-based printing company Colortree Group Inc. has abruptly closed “some or all of its divisions” and laid off 240 employees, according to a notice the company sent to state and local officials.

The company, which has operated for more than 30 years printing direct-mail envelopes, flyers, brochures and other products for the direct-mail industry, filed a federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN Act, notice informing officials of the job cuts at its plant at 8000 Villa Park Drive.

The notice, sent to the Virginia Employment Commission and the county manager’s office, was dated Monday, but the VEC didn’t receive the notice until Tuesday.

The notice did not give a reason for the closure. It said the job cuts started Monday.

“Many of Colortree’s approximately 240 employees at this worksite will be laid off as a result,” according to the letter, signed by James “Pat” Patterson, Colortree’s president and chief executive officer.

“The anticipated closure of certain Colortree divisions, and resulting layoffs, will be permanent,” the letter said. “Employees will be paid through that date [June 3] regardless if the facility or division in which they work closes sooner.”

Phone and email messages left for Patterson, who also owns the business, on Monday afternoon and Tuesday were not returned.

Doors to the office were locked Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning. The parking lot was empty on Monday afternoon but about a dozen cars were in the parking lot Tuesday morning. No one answered the door.

The notice includes a list of 240 affected jobs, a combination of production, maintenance, administrative and management roles. The management jobs listed include the chief operating officer, the vice president of human resources and the vice president of marketing.

Colortree, founded in 1988, operated in a 73,000-square-foot plant near Bryan Park for about 16 years before moving to a 105,000-square-foot plant on Villa Park Drive, located off East Parham Road near Brook Road.

In a 2008 interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the company’s then-executives said it produced about 1 billion envelopes a year for customers such as businesses and nonprofit organizations that send direct-mail advertising or solicitations.

In 2011, Colortree and Graphics Innovations, a specialty printer of direct-mail products, were acquired by Pat Patterson and Boathouse Capital. The two companies were combined with Patterson as CEO.

Patterson became sole owner of Colortree Group in late 2016 when his Stingem Management Group LLC acquired Boathouse Capital’s 72 percent stake in the company that he didn’t own.

Colortree Group had grown from 185 employees in 2011 to 235 workers in 2016. Its revenue soared from $32 million in 2011 to $60 million in 2016.

The company reported sales of $57 million in 2018, a 4% increase from the previous year of $55 million, according to the trade publication Printing Impressions. Colortree Group was ranked No. 97 in Printing Impressions’ ranking of the top 400 printing companies in the U.S. and Canada.