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Misfire: Special General Assembly session called Tuesday to deal with gun violence collapses in GOP ploy; showdown expected in November elections

Jeremy Lazarus and George Copeland | 7/12/2019, 5:55 a.m.
Gun control is likely to be a red-hot campaign issue for Virginia’s fall elections in the wake of a special ...
Passionate gun control supporters rally at the Bank Street entrance to the State Capitol Tuesday, but ended up disappointed after the General Assembly halted any consideration of the measures until Nov. 18. Left, two gun rights advocates brought their weapons to the rally. Virginia is an “open carry” state, meaning it is lawful to openly carry a firearm. Photo by Regina H. Boone

Gun control is likely to be a red-hot campaign issue for Virginia’s fall elections in the wake of a special General Assembly session that misfired Tuesday.

Slender Republican majorities in the House of Delegates and state Senate abruptly adjourned the session rather than take up any of the proposed legislation and face heat for killing the bills they oppose.

A frustrated Gov. Ralph S. Northam and his Democratic allies who are pushing tougher gun laws in Virginia vowed to take the issue to voters who will elect all 140 members of the General Assembly on Nov. 5.

The governor called the special session in the wake of the May 31 massacre of 12 people at the Virginia Beach municipal center on May 31 and the May 26 shooting death of a 9-year-old girl playing in a Richmond park.

Ahead of the session, Gov. Northam had submitted a package of what he called “common sense reforms” for the legislature to consider, including universal background checks, restoring a one-gun-a-month limit on purchases, outlawing silencers and high-capacity bullet magazines, restricting sales to the mentally ill and restoring authority to cities, counties and towns to ban firearms from their government buildings.

In response, Republicans sent all of the bills to the GOP-dominated state Crime Commission for study and set a return date of Nov. 18 — 13 days after the election — for the legislature to consider the commission’s recommendations.

The result is to set up a showdown on gun control as voters go to the polls to settle the question of which political party will control the legislature.

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From left, Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax, Richmond Delegate Delores L. McQuinn, Gov. Ralph S. Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring pray during a “Stop the Gun Violence Rally” last Sunday at Thirty-first Street Baptist Church in the East End. Delegate McQuinn organized the event ahead of Tuesday’s special legislative session.

While venting frustration, Democrats consider the Republican ploy as a win. Party incumbents and candidates are hoping gun control and public safety will be a winning issue that will help them take the majority.

And behind the scenes, the governor’s leadership on the gun issue will enable him to overcome any lingering concerns over the blackface scandal that has tainted him and help the two other top Democratic officials, Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, who also have been dealing with their own personal conduct scandals.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. “Tommy” Norment of James City County and their GOP colleagues are hoping their efforts to protect the status quo by blocking restrictions on gun sales or possession will help maintain GOP control of both houses.

Ahead of Tuesday’s session, thousands of advocates flooded into Capitol Square to promote or attack the proposed legislation. “Votes and Laws!” was one of the many chants that rose on the grounds during the rallies.

Capitol Police stayed close, and advocates on both sides of the gun issue remained peaceful. Several pro-gun rights advocates openly carried side arms and military-style weapons, which is allowed under Virginia law.

After Republicans pulled off their shutdown of the session, Democrats reacted strongly, labeling the inaction as “pathetic,” “shameful” and “flat-out cowardly.”

Gov. Northam set the tone for the party in a message that was repeated with variations by the partisans who agreed with him.