Republican Virginia lawmakers on Tuesday abruptly adjourned a special session aimed at gun control measures that was called following a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building early last month.
The decision to adjourn the session until mid-November — after the state’s legislative elections are held — enraged Democrats, but Republicans said Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s calling of the session in the first place was politically motivated.
“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 Tuesday. “I expected better of them. Virginians expect better of them.”
Democrats had appealed to Republicans to consider bills put forth by Northam that included a universal background checks bill, reinstating Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, but House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican, called the session an “election-year stunt” and said such actions were premature while the investigation into the June shooting was ongoing.
“The speed which the governor called the session, the partisan demands for floor votes, the roadshow all demonstrate to me how the whole thing is just an election year stunt,” Cox said at a news conference following the adjournment. “We all share the goal of reducing gun violence in Virginia.”
Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly, which are controlled by Republicans with slim majorities, adjourned the special session until November 18.
“I wasn’t expecting much, but I wasn’t expecting this,” Andy Parker, the father of Alison Parker, a Virginia TV journalist who was shot and killed on air in 2015, told CNN Tuesday, adding that it was a “disgraceful act of cowardice on the part of Republicans.”
The session began following a vigil for victims of gun violence, as well as demonstrations by groups on both sides of the gun control debate. Two groups that advocate for stricter gun control, the Brady Campaign and March for Our Lives, bused supporters from different parts of the state and Washington to Richmond for a rally, while the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which advocates for Second Amendment rights, called its members to rally and “flood” committee meetings.
Following the vigil, gun control advocates gathered for a rally in front of the statehouse, chanting “votes and laws.” On the other side of the street stood a small group of National Rifle Association members and armed militia members who mixed in among the crowd. The protests stayed peaceful as the two groups converged on the statehouse on a hot morning.
Sheila Green Hall, a Richmond resident who lost her son, Omar Green, to gun violence last month, said she joined gun control groups on Tuesday to protest because there are “too many mothers crying.”
To gun rights’ advocates, Hall argued, “You have your right to bear arms, but your right is taking away my right for my child to live.”
Donna Hurlock, a member of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, told CNN Tuesday she came to “help protect our Second Amendment rights.”
“Northam wants to regain some credibility after his blackface incident so he’s making some push to appease the gun-grabbing left,” Hurlock said, arguing that the Democrats’ proposals would make Virginians more vulnerable to attacks.
At one point on Tuesday, the state Senate held a moment of silence for the victims of the Virginia Beach shooting, and both chambers passed legislation honoring the victims.
Northam says shooting demands action
Last week, Northam unveiled policy proposals he wanted the Virginia General Assembly to consider, and said last month that the Virginia Beach shooting, “as well as the tragedies that happen every day across Virginia, must instill in us a new level of urgency to act.”
Ahead of the special session, Republicans filed proposals related to mandatory minimum sentencings for gun violations, despite Northam’s public vow to not sign future bills related to mandatory minimums, arguing such measures are punitive, expensive and disproportionately harm communities of color.
Tuesday’s session agenda, as approved by Republicans, focused on public safety, mental health and financial resources for Virginia Beach shooting victims. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Tommy Norment, a Republican, pulled a bill he introduced on Monday that would have banned firearms from local government buildings.
Several proposals Northam wanted the state legislature to consider were many of the same ones he put forth in January at the start of the year’s legislative session. Republicans had voted down some of the bills and effectively blocked the other measures from moving out of committees earlier this year.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.