Special session on gun violence halted by Republican majority

by Megan Schiffres

 

Democratic Sen. Jennifer Boysko, of Herndon, chants in the midst of a pro-gun control rally held at the entrance of the General Assembly building.
Brandon Howard, a gun rights advocate and member of Right to Bear Arms Richmond, lobbies legislators carrying an AR-15 rifle.

The General Assembly’s special session on gun violence Tuesday, July 9, was adjourned almost immediately by a majority of Republican legislators in both the House and Senate.

After only an hour and fifteen minutes the Senate voted 20-18 to adjourn the special session until November 18, followed by the House which voted 50-46 to adjourn after about an hour and a half of discussion.

The special session was called by Gov. Ralph Northam in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach which killed 12 people and wounded four others. The legislation proposed by Democrats for consideration during the special session included bills that would have required background checks for all firearm sales, prohibited people subject to protective orders from possessing a firearm, given law enforcement and the courts the authority to temporarily separate a person from firearms if that person poses a danger to themselves or others, enhanced the punishment for allowing access to a loaded, unsecured firearm by a child, banned firearms from government buildings, and enabled localities to enact firearm ordinances stricter than state law.

“It is shameful and disappointing that Republicans in the General Assembly refuse to do their jobs, and take immediate action to save lives. I expected better of them. Virginians expect better of them,” said Gov. Northam.

Advocates for common sense gun control legislation including survivors of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach demonstrated enthusiastically on the Capital Square before the special session convened, calling for the legislation before the General Assembly to bypass committee assignment and be voted on the floor of both chambers.

“I feel like we were robbed. That they didn’t do their jobs and I think it’s so frustrating,” said Julie Lahann, a representative of the pro-gun control legislation group Indivisible NoVA West, after the session was abruptly adjourned.

Both gun control and gun rights advocates lobbied members of the General Assembly in the hours before the special session began, queuing up for entry into the General Assembly Pocahontas building which stretched around the corner. Some gun rights advocates protested the special session by open-carrying loaded firearms outside and throughout the halls of the government building, demonstrating their right to bear arms in government buildings which could have been threatened by legislation proposed to curb gun violence if the special session had continued.

“We do right-to-carry around the Commonwealth for educational purposes. We educate the public on what their rights are,” said gun rights advocate Brandon Howard, who organized a pro-gun rally during the special session and lobbied members of the legislature holding an AR-15 rifle.

Despite political pressure to do more than offer thoughts and prayers to victims of gun violence across the Commonwealth, the General Assembly achieved that. Both chambers passed a series of commendations including House Resolution 4013, celebrating the lives of the victims of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach, and Senate Resolution 4016, commending the Virginia Beach Police Department and Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office, but failed to pass reform to prevent a tragedy like the one that occurred on May 31 from happening again.

On the House floor, several representatives spoke about their own experiences with gun violence and expressed their support for meaningful gun violence prevention legislation in Virginia.

“We need to have real conversations about the ease with which individuals who might be a harm to themselves or others can get a gun while also wanting to help gun owners keep their guns away from those who could harm or hurt others,” said House minority leader Del. Eileen Filler-Corn. “Far too many innocent people lost their lives in Virginia Beach just last month. And every week far too many people lose their lives from guns as well. No one should worry when they go to work, when they go to a movie, when they go to a restaurant, they go to a picnic, that they might not be able to come home to their loved ones.”

Del. Barry D. Knight, who represents Virginia Beach, read the names of the victims of the Virginia Beach shooting on the House floor and choked up as he moved that the House adjourn in honor of their memory.

Del. Margaret Ransone, who represents the Northern Neck, voted in favor of adjourning the special session because she said the investigation into the Virginia Beach shooting is incomplete.

Sen. Ryan McDougle, who represents the Northern Neck, made the motion in the Senate to adjourn and also voted in favor of ending the session.

“This was a political ploy by the governor ahead of an election,” said Sen. McDougle. “I am pleased that we are now going to go through a deliberate process where we are going to have an actual conversation about legislation and policy to come up with a deliberate-evidence based package instead of one that’s just trying to score political points.”

Sen. McDougle, who also sits on the Senate committee on courts and justice where several gun control bills were referred before the special session began, moved to refer the proposed legislation to the Virginia State Crime Commission for consideration after the special session adjourned. The House committee on militia, police, and public safety also referred all bills before them to the Virginia State Crime Commission.

“The Crime Commission is made up of legislators and experts in the field that can focus on researching this issue but we can also wait for the investigation to conclude,” said Del. Ransone.

The commission’s findings will be considered when the General Assembly convenes again on November 18.