Special session on guns expected to be contentious

(WYDaily/Melanie Occhiuzzo)
(Southside Daily/Melanie Occhiuzzo)

Virginia lawmakers are set to assemble Tuesday for what will likely be a contentious legislative session on gun laws.

Gov. Ralph Northam called the special session last month shortly after a Virginia Beach city employee opened fire on his coworkers at a municipal building on May 31.

Northam, a Democrat faced with a gun-friendly, Republican-controlled General Assembly in the middle of a legislative election year, is urging action on a several gun-control measures. He said lawmakers owe the victims of gun violence “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers.”

Police said Virginia Beach employee DeWayne Craddock used two semi-automatic handguns, a silencer and extended ammunition magazines to murder 12 people at a municipal building. Craddock was then killed in a gunbattle with police.

Republicans have criticized the governor — who has been politically weakened by a racist yearbook photo scandal from earlier this year— as an opportunist trying to exploit a tragedy for political gain.

Here’s a look at some of the fault lines heading into Tuesday’s special session:

What Democrats want

Northam is proposing several gun-control bills, include a ban on silencers and high-capacity magazines.

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 weapons from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.

Beyond the actual legislation, Democrats are looking to pin down lawmakers with recorded votes. Gun-control bills usually fail in GOP-controlled committees, with only a few legislators voting. Northam has pressured Republicans to at least allow a full floor vote on the measures.

What Republicans want

Republicans have shown no appetite for taking up Northam’s suggested bills, but instead said they want focus on criminal penalties directly or indirectly related to gun crimes. That includes enacting new mandatory minimum penalties for certain repeat domestic abusers, which Republicans said would reduce the number of gun-related homicides.

Northam said in May he would no longer sign any legislation that imposes new mandatory minimum penalties, a pledge he said was part of his efforts to make Virginia more equitable for communities of color.

Another GOP proposal would make it easier for state law enforcement officials to reduce prison time for informants who provide information about gun smuggling and other related crimes.

Heated backdrop

The special session will play out as election season heats up. All 140 legislative seats are up for grabs, and Virginia is the only state whose legislature has a reasonable chance of flipping partisan control this year. Republicans currently have narrow majorities in both the House and Senate.

Advocacy groups on both sides of the issue have spent heavily and mobilized their members in past state elections, and they are likely to do so this year. In 2015, a gun-control group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent more than $2.4 million helping Virginia Democrats.

Wild card

Guns may not be the only topic of the special session. Republicans are also pushing for a bipartisan hearing on into sexual assault allegations two women have made against Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. Democratic leaders have dismissed the idea as a political stunt, but the caucus is divided on how to treat Fairfax.

Two women earlier this year publicly accused Fairfax of sexual assault and said they want to testify before the legislature, but only if both political parties participate. Fairfax has denied any wrongdoing and said the allegations should only be investigated by law enforcement officials.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.