GOP-led Virginia legislature abruptly adjourns gun session

(Southside Daily/Courtesy of 13NewsNow)
(Southside Daily/Courtesy of 13NewsNow)

Less than two hours after beginning a special session called in response to a mass shooting, Virginia lawmakers abruptly adjourned Tuesday and postponed any movement on gun laws until after the November election.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam summoned the Republican-led Legislature to the Capitol to address gun violence in the wake of the May 31 attack that killed a dozen people in Virginia Beach. He put forward a package of eight gun-control measures and called for “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers” in reaction to the massacre.

But not a single vote was cast on the legislation. Republican leaders said the session was premature and politically motivated. They assigned the state’s bipartisan crime commission to study the Virginia Beach shooting and the governor’s proposed legislation.

In reply, angry Democrats said Republicans were beholden to the gun lobby and afraid of passing commonsense laws they know will save lives.

It was a familiar outcome in a stalled debate that plays out yearly in Virginia on an issue that has divided the nation for more than two decades.

“I wasn’t expecting much, but I wasn’t expecting this,” said Andy Parker, whose journalist daughter, Alison Parker, was shot to death on live TV in Virginia in 2015, along with a cameraman.

“This is just a complete, disgraceful act of cowardice by the Republicans … And I think it’s going to backfire on them,” he said.

Republicans said it was Northam, still dealing with the fallout of a blackface scandal that almost drove him from office, who acted improperly. Instead of pushing for votes on legislation that would not have prevented the Virginia Beach shooting, they said, the governor should have called for a blue-ribbon commission to study gun and mental health issues. That is similar to what U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine did as governor following a 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech that left 32 people dead and more than a dozen wounded.

“Quite frankly, we need to take a little bit deeper look at these issues and actually do something rather than stage manage a vote in which we’re just trying to embarrass each other,” said state Sen. Mark Obenshain.

After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, the state passed a law prohibiting people deemed seriously mentally ill from buying a gun. But a push at the time for universal background checks failed.

Virginia is generally considered a gun-friendly state and is home to the NRA headquarters. The GOP-led General Assembly has spiked numerous gun-control bills — including several Northam proposed for the special session — year after year.

Richard Keene, a 51-year-old gun owner from Chesterfield, said the session turned out to be “a lot of hype for nothing.”

“I’m a little disappointed in everyone, actually,” he said. “I don’t feel like the common, normal person, the normal American, is represented anymore. It’s frustrating.”

The special session got off to a chaotic start, with the Republican Senate majority leader averting a mutiny in the GOP caucus by publicly disavowing a gun-control bill he proposed only a day earlier.

On Monday, the leader, Tommy Norment, shocked fellow Republicans by filing surprise legislation to broadly ban guns in any government building statewide. That prompted an immediate backlash in the GOP caucus, which controls the chamber by a slim 20-19 advantage. His top vote-counter, Sen. Bill Stanley, resigned as majority whip in protest.

But the departure did not last long. Stanley said Norment apologized and asked Stanley to reconsider his resignation. The caucus quickly restored him to his position, and Norment announced that he would throw out his own bill.

Outside the Capitol, Northam led a group of gun-control supporters chanting “Enough is enough!” It has become a refrain against gun violence at rallies nationwide after repeated mass shootings.

After the adjournment, Northam issued a statement saying it was “shameful and disappointing” that Republicans “refuse to do their jobs and take immediate action to save lives.”

The Virginia Beach attack began when a civil engineer opened fire in a municipal building. The assailant was killed in a gunfight with police.

In calling for gun-control legislation, Northam also cited the fatal shooting of 9-year-old Markiya Dickson in a Richmond park during a May 26 cookout.

Gun-rights advocates also rallied outside the Capitol and filed through an office building to meet with lawmakers. Some made their way through the Capitol with handguns openly visible in holsters, which is permitted.

Jim Snyder, a 69-year-old gun owner from northern Virginia, said the Virginia Beach shooting had not moved the needle on gun issues for him one bit.

“A lot of people say, ‘Well, we’ve got to find common ground,’ which means, ‘We’ve got to find gun control that you’ll accept,'” said Snyder, who is vice president of the gun-rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League. But he said he was speaking only for himself.

Keene, who was standing outside the Capitol after most of the crowds had dissipated, said he was disappointed with the partisanship surrounding the issue.

“I believe there is some common ground for the common good that all of us could work toward,” he said.

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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.