The vision of a 9-year-old girl, killed by gunfire in a South Richmond park, lit a spark in Gov. Ralph Northam on Sunday as he called for the General Assembly to act this week to toughen Virginia laws on the purchase and use of firearms.
Speaking to a predominantly black audience at 31st Street Baptist Church in Church Hill, Northam paced behind the pulpit as he remembered treating wounded soldiers as a U.S. Army doctor in the Persian Gulf and holding children who died from gunshots after picking up a loaded weapon from a bedside table.
He remembered a young woman he had treated since she was 2 years old who was shot to death by her enraged husband in front of their infant child, and the 12 people killed on May 31 at a Virginia Beach municipal building by a former colleague who used a silencer as he shot them.
But Northam said, “What really woke me up — as if I needed to be woken up — was Markiya Dickson,” a 9-year-old girl killed in a crossfire during a Memorial Day celebration at Carter Jones Park.
He raised Markiya’s memory as a challenge to members of the General Assembly, who will meet Tuesday in a special session that he called to act on eight legislative proposals to tighten gun laws, including allowing local governments to restrict firearms in municipal buildings and other public venues, including parks.
“They can bring their thoughts and prayers, that’s fine, but they were elected by folks like you to vote and enact laws,” Northam told an audience already roused by a combination of fervent gospel hymns, prayer and calls for action by numerous Democratic elected officials.
In response, a spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, dismissed the governor’s call for a special session as an election-year stunt that would do nothing to address gun violence in Virginia.
“From Southwest Virginia to Hampton Roads, there has been strong public opposition to the gun control laws proposed by the governor,” said Matthew Moran, the speaker’s chief of staff.
“Along with law enforcement, the governor himself said nothing proposed in this special session would have stopped the terrible tragedy we saw in Virginia Beach,” Moran said in an email message. “It’s clear that this is an election-year political move by Democrats and not much more.”
But Northam appeared personally energized by the spirit of a rally that felt like a revival. He clapped his hands to a thunderous gospel performance by the New Life Deliverance Tabernacle choir and urged its members to “come to the Capitol on Tuesday and put some urgency into the General Assembly!”
The rally, organized by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, was a boost for the governor’s efforts to reconnect with African Americans five months after a scandal erupted over a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page. Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photo and then reversed himself the next day, saying he was not in the picture, which showed a man in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
McQuinn has stood behind Northam, whom she described Sunday as “a humble, passionate, spirit-filled man.
“Even through ups and downs, he has stood faithfully for the cause,” she said.
The rally also featured Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, who are trying to recover from their own scandals that erupted in early February, but it showcased Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposal to ban or restrict weapons in the city’s municipal buildings and other public venues.
The City Council approved the ordinance last Monday on a 7-0 vote with two abstentions. It will not take effect unless the assembly acts this week to approve enabling legislation proposed by Northam.
The governor thanked Stoney and said, “We ought to be able to tell people that we don’t want guns in our municipal buildings and we don’t want guns in our parks.”
Stoney voiced optimism that legislators “will see the light” and enact restrictions on firearms.
But if they don’t, he said, in a pointed reference to legislative elections in November, “you know what you have to do.”