Tuesday’s special session of the General Assembly, called by Gov. Ralph Northam to pass “commonsense gun laws” in the immediate aftermath of the horrific May 31 shooting at Virginia Beach, lasted about as many minutes as there were total bills submitted. No one should have been surprised that the Republican-controlled legislature quickly dispatched the session, with GOP leaders dismissing it as “an election year stunt” by a Democratic governor scrambling to politically rehabilitate himself after the blackface scandal nearly forced him out of office.
Northam announced the special session four days after a public utilities employee shot 12 people, including colleagues, at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. He called for measures that are no strangers to debate in the state legislature, among them universal background checks, bans on assault weapons, suppressors and bump stocks, and reinstating the one-handgun-a-month law repealed by majority Republicans in 2012. The governor launched a campaign-like blitz to generate support, holding rallies and town halls across the state.
Last week, we heard from more than 260 Virginians who shared their thoughts of what should be done — or not done — regarding the state’s gun laws. We published highlights of the letters in an expanded Sunday Commentary section, and you can find a fuller list online at richmond.com.
A circus-like tableau set the stage Tuesday on the Capitol grounds, with both sides of the emotional issue rallying their allies. On one end, gun control supporters held up bullhorns and shouted “You vote today! We vote in November!” On the other end, Second Amendment enthusiasts wore military-style garb, sported their semi-automatic rifles and wore stickers proclaiming “Guns Save Lives.”
In the House, while Democratic delegates spoke with intensity, their passion-filled statements had little impact on the GOP leadership. After listening for nearly an hour to the heartfelt speeches of delegates who pleaded for tighter gun laws, House Republicans promptly moved to meet again in November amid the fury of Democrats. With nothing accomplished, the event was merely a matter of passionate Democrats being outplayed by well-planned GOP plotting. In a statement, Northam called the Republicans “shameful and disappointing” for their refusal “to do their jobs, and take immediate action to save lives.”
With the GOP still holding a razor-thin edge, no one should have been surprised by Tuesday’s short session and the move to meet next on Nov. 18 — two weeks after the legislative elections. In a year when all 100 House of Delegates and 40 state Senate seats are on the ballot and control of the assembly lies at stake, Republicans aren’t about to give Democrats — especially the governor — any sort of legislative victory. Democrats, though, could extract revenge at the polls this fall.
Rather, the GOP leadership announced they have asked the Virginia State Crime Commission to review the legislation and make a final report to the General Assembly a week before the Nov. 18 session — when the lameduck legislature could act on bills.
In a joint press conference with House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, praised the action of another Democratic governor who faced a similar crisis — Tim Kaine. Norment said that after the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, then-governor Kaine had refrained from taking a political stance on the incident. Kaine instead called for a bipartisan panel to address that tragedy. Norment contrasted that with Northam’s decision not to establish his own crime commission to examine what happened at Virginia Beach or even wait until a police investigation had taken place.
The GOP does raise a valid point in that the governor called this session so soon after the tragedy. They also have a point that the blue ribbon panel convened by Kaine took a thorough, indepth look at what happened at Virginia Tech. The report, completed in August 2007, offered several recommendations that might possibly have prevented gun violence, such as background checks for all firearm sales, including those at gun shows. Republicans have had nearly 12 years to take action on this and they haven’t. What are they waiting for?
The special session was a knee jerk reaction to a horrific event, the latest in an ongoing string of tragedies that have scarred the nation. Issued less than a week after the tragedy, it allowed no time for thorough investigation or thoughtful review. Virginians deserve a full debate on this issue. We understand the desire to do something quickly, but hasty actions taken in the passion of the moment seldom have successful outcomes.
Since the legislature left Richmond without taking action, it’s up to Virginians to decide what they want. We’ll find out on Nov. 5 what the voters think. Let your voice be heard.
— Pamela Stallsmith, Robin Beres and Chris Gentilviso