On Tuesday, the Virginia General Assembly cut their special session on gun policy unexpectedly short, having accomplished nothing.
The reason being? They simply could not get it together.
The session was called by embattled Democratic Governor Ralph Northam in response to a recent mass shooting in Virginia Beach at a municipal building on May 31, where 12 people were killed by a former coworker. “It’s an emergency here in Virginia, and it’s time to take action,” Northam said earlier in the summer.
In the weeks that followed his proclamation, however, the road to a legislative solution was swiftly detoured by the competing motivations of various lawmakers and growing distrust of the Governor. Moreover, the whole endeavor may have been doomed from the start due to one lawmaker’s glaring conflict of interests.
From the outset, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox was unwilling to even engage with Northam’s desire for a quick and meaningful response, accusing the governor of attempting to “take advantage of this tragedy to try and boost his own disgraced image.” Cox was referring to last February’s disclosure of a yearbook photo of Northam in which he was allegedly wearing blackface. Those revelations prompted a round of calls for Northam’s resignation across party lines — something Virginia Republicans seem bent on not letting him soon forget.
After undermining the Governor, Republican lawmakers set about to undermine legislative best practices as well. State Sen. Bill DeSteph (R), who represents the Virginia Beach district in which the May shooting occurred, currently holds a license to deal and sell firearms, and has established a business to facilitate these transactions that he has not disclosed on his required ethics forms. When ThinkProgress reached out for clarity in June as to whether or not this business should have been so disclosed, DeSteph and his office did not respond to inquiries. His team also did not confirm if he would recuse himself from this special session, given that these business holdings appear to create an obvious conflict of interest in debating laws that would curtail the sale of some firearms.
Additionally, the special session quickly attracted the attention of gun lobbyists and gun reform activists. In the days leading up to Tuesday, the National Rifle Association held town halls throughout the state — including one in Virginia Beach. Meanwhile, the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), Brady United Against Gun Violence, and March for Our Lives brought supporters to Richmond, all keen to lobby state legislators.
Northam planned to propose legislation that included universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and bump stocks and high-capacity magazines. Northam’s proposal also sought to reinstate the repealed 2012 law that limited handgun purchases to one per month. He also sought to institute a “red flag law” — which would allow law enforcement officials or informed family members to petition a state court to temporarily take possession of firearms belonging to a person credibly believed to present a danger to others or themselves.
Additionally, Northam hoped that lawmakers would require lost or stolen guns to be reported to the police within 24 hours, prohibit anyone with a protection order against them from possessing a gun, and grant cities and counties the ability to pass gun laws stricter than state law, which could have resulted in some local governments passing ordinances banning firearms from public buildings or events.
Northam’s critics argued that none of the bills he sought to introduce would have prevented the mass shooting in Virginia Beach. Republicans, who hold the majority in both houses of the Virginia state legislature, declared last month that they would not accept any bill that might infringe upon civilians’ Second Amendment rights. Nevertheless, there is a broad consensus backing the notion that these laws, coupled together, could have a positive impact on gun violence and lessen opportunities for deadly weapons to end up in the wrong hands.
The scene outside the special session, according to reports, was chaotic. Gun-control activists rallied supporters with sloganeering and the reading of names of gun violence victims, including those killed in Virginia Beach. Northam himself led a round of chants, declaiming “Enough is enough!” along with the assembled crowd. Meanwhile, the scene inside the Capitol was laden with irony, as gun rights supporters could be found roaming the halls with guns visibly holstered on their hips.
In a news conference after both houses elected to punt on the matter, Cox referred to the effort as “just an election year stunt.”
Republican leaders compared the approach to the one taken by current Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who, as the Democratic governor of Virginia in 2007, convened a panel to study and make recommendations after the shootings at Virginia Tech, among the deadliest ever on a school campus.
But this was not just a partisan disagreement about process. Republicans said the proposals that were most effective need not touch guns.
“Democrats have exclusively focused on gun control bills during this special session,” Cox said at the news conference, adding that he fundamentally disagreed with that. “There is no focus on mental health or punishing criminals for the crimes they commit.”
Both Cox and the Republican state Senate majority leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., sent an open letter asking the Virginia State Crime Commission to investigate the Virginia Beach shooting, review any new legislation proposed, and return with a report advising what to do next come November 12 , when the assembly will officially reconvene.
State Senator Dick Saslaw (D), said the abrupt close to the session was “the most irresponsible act I’ve seen in all my years in the General Assembly,” but even he had to admit that he expected “hardly anything” to come out of the effort. Saslaw’s dismay may be broadly felt across the Commonwealth of Virginia, where polling indicates majority support for additional gun control legislation.
“It is shameful and disappointing that Republicans in the General Assembly refuse to do their jobs, and take immediate action to save lives,” Northam said in a statement. “I expected better of them. Virginians expect better of them.”
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