Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday he will summon lawmakers back to the state capitol this summer to take up a package of gun-control legislation, saying last week’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach calls for “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers.”
Northam, a Democrat faced with a gun-friendly, Republican-controlled General Assembly in the middle of a legislative election year, also said he wants every lawmaker to go on record for or against his proposals during the special session, rather than avoid tough votes by quietly killing the bills in subcommittee.
“The nation will be watching,” the governor said, four days after Virginia Beach employee DeWayne Craddock used two semi-automatic handguns, a silencer and extended ammunition magazines to slaughter 12 people at a municipal building. Craddock was then killed in a gunbattle with police.
Northam’s bills include a ban on silencers and high-capacity magazines, as well as a broadening of the ability of local governments to prohibit guns in city buildings. 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.
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“I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers,” he said, mocking the usual response to gun violence by supporters of the gun lobby.
No immediate date for the special session was set, but Northam said he wants to hold it in late June.
In a statement, GOP Speaker Kirk Cox dismissed the governor’s call for a special session as “hasty and suspect when considered against the backdrop of the last few months” — a reference to the blackface photo scandal that nearly destroyed Northam’s career.
Cox said the Republicans will instead put forward legislation to toughen penalties — including new, mandatory minimum sentences — for those who use guns to commit crimes.
“We believe addressing gun violence starts with holding criminals accountable for their actions, not infringing on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” he said.
Another top Republican, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, noted that the governor is pushing for legislation that already failed earlier this year.
“This governor has opted for political posturing over solutions,” Norment said.
Virginia is generally considered a very gun-friendly state and is home to the National Rifle Association’s headquarters.
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After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a student with a history of mental problems shot 32 people to death, the state passed a law prohibiting people adjudicated as seriously mentally ill from buying a gun. But a push at the time for universal background checks failed.
Most of the other legislation proposed this time also fell short before in Virginia, where Republicans hold slim majorities in the House and Senate. All 140 legislative seats are up for grabs this year, and the Democrats are thought to have a realistic chance of taking back control of the General Assembly.
In making the announcement at a state office building, Northam got a standing ovation from gun-control advocates, state workers and elected officials as he said the massacre in Virginia Beach demands that lawmakers put saving lives ahead of party loyalty.
Noting that first responders saved lives in last week’s attack, he said: “Now, I’m calling on the elected officials of this commonwealth to become second responders. Your duty is clear: Rush to the scene and put a stop to this violence.”
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“Show Virginians that it doesn’t matter what party you are in, we all are Virginians first, and we care about the safety and security of every Virginian,” he added.
The governor has long advocated stricter gun control and gets an F grade from the NRA. He made the issue a top priority of his 2017 campaign, drawing from his experience as a pediatrician and Army doctor who has treated children and soldiers wounded by gunfire.
Craddock appeared to have had no felony record and is believed to have legally purchased his two .45-calibre pistols, authorities said.
Friday’s shooting has been Northam’s first major test since a scandal over a photo in his medical school yearbook nearly drove him from office four months ago. Northam denied he was in the picture of someone in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
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A top gun-rights advocate, Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defence League, denounced the special session as “political theatre” and said the answer is to make it easier for people to carry weapons.
“There’s really nothing other than allowing people to protect themselves until the police get there that would have worked,” he said.