After Mass Shooting, Virginia's Governor Called a Special Session on Guns. It Abruptly Ended Without Debate.

Less than two hours after beginning a special session ordered by the Democratic governor to consider new gun laws, Republican lawmakers voted Tuesday to adjourn until November without debating any legislation.
by | July 10, 2019 AT 7:19 AM
Gun control advocates protest outside the Virginia Capitol.
Protesters outside the Virginia Capitol as the short-lived special session on guns began. (AP/Steve Helber)

By Marie Albiges and Peter Coutu

Less than two hours after beginning a special session ordered by the Democratic governor to consider new gun laws, Republican lawmakers voted Tuesday to adjourn until November without debating any legislation.

That means Virginia won't pass any laws following the Virginia Beach mass shooting, at least until after the Nov. 5 election. Democrats objected to the move, but were powerless to stop it.

The votes to adjourn came after hundreds of people gathered near the Capitol to urge new gun control laws they hoped would prevent future mass shootings. Hundreds more asked lawmakers not to restrict Second Amendment rights, with some saying none of the bills proposed would have prevented a gunman from killing 12 people in Virginia Beach on May 31.

Instead of holding hearings on the bills, House and Senate leaders sent them to be studied by the Virginia State Crime Commission, which will also "undertake a systematic review of the events that occurred in Virginia Beach," according to a letter from Republican leadership. It could also look at any reports from the independent investigation the Virginia Beach City Council has commissioned on the shooting.

The Crime Commission, which includes lawmakers from both parties and citizen members, makes recommendations to the General Assembly. Sen. Mark Obenshain, a Republican, chairs the commission and said its next meeting would likely be in August.

He said sending the bills to the commission would "introduce an evidence-based process" to look at the proposals with "calm deliberation."

Any legislation filed by members of the General Assembly before July 19 will be included, and lawmakers can also strike any bills that have already been filed. The commission will issue a report after Nov. 12.

Before that, all 140 members will be up for election in November. Democrats hope to retake the House and Senate from Republicans, who narrowly control both chambers.

Democrats called the Republicans' surprise move Tuesday an "abdication of responsibility," a waste of taxpayers' money and a clear ploy to kick the can past Election Day.

"This is not fair play. It's not about Democrats and Republicans," said Delegate Charniele Herring, Democratic House Caucus chair. "What they did is unfair to every Virginian _ every Virginian _ and especially our children, who have to do drills about how to keep safe."

While it was the tragedy in Virginia Beach that led to the special session, much of the sprawling coastal city's leadership had little appetite for actually taking a stance on issues pertaining to gun control.

Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer repeatedly said Monday night that he thought the session was ill-timed, and that city officials didn't want to wade into the issues that could lead to more division.

"I don't think the timing is appropriate for this," he said over the phone. "It might create more polarization at a time when we should be coming together. I wish they would've waited."

No members of the Virginia Beach City Council were seen in Richmond Tuesday. The same is true for the families of the 12 victims who died.

Virginia Beach Republican lawmakers filed several bills aimed at providing up to $30 million to renovate Building 2 of the Virginia Beach Municipal Center, where the shooting occurred. Those bills will likely go to the appropriations committees in both chambers.

When announcing the move Tuesday, the state's top Republicans repeatedly referred back to then-Gov. Tim Kaine's response to the Virginia Tech shooting _ lauding the Democrat's establishment of an independent review panel as a measured reaction to what remains the worst school shooting in U.S. history. They said Gov. Ralph Northam should've done the same.

"Today, we are moving forward to try to correct this oversight from the governor and this administration," said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, who argued that Northam calling this session was an attempt to "divert attention from himself" after the racist yearbook photo scandal this February.

But Kaine, now a U.S. senator, has said the situation in Virginia Beach was very different, with roughly a dozen years in between the two tragedies.

"We don't need a lot more studying and recommendations right now because we've suffered through one shooting after the next. What we need now is action," he said recently. "I think the legislators know what they need to know to take action."

Upon convening at noon Tuesday, Republicans were quick to limit the scope of the special session to bills related to public safety, mental or behavioral health, budget adjustments and tax exemptions for donations to Virginia Beach victim relief funds.

Democrats reiterated their objective: to pass Northam's eight proposals, including universal background checks, extreme risk protection orders and bans on bump stocks, high-capacity magazines and silencer bans.

Norment, a Republican, walked back on a bill he filed Monday that would ban guns in government buildings. He said he as written, the legislation "represents neither my views nor my intention. I do not support _ nor will I support _ any measure that restricts the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens."

He said after a news conference that he "overlooked" some of the language in the bill and felt rushed to file it.

"On reflection, I thought that many people would think that I was trying to trespass on the Second Amendment, and I was not," he said.

He added: "I'm an imperfect legislator, and it was the crush of time."

Philip Van Cleave, who heads the gun-rights organization Virginia Citizens Defense League, said his members called Norment's office several times Monday and Tuesday but did not speak with him. Norment said he was not approached by any VCDL or National Rifle Association members Tuesday.

Van Cleave said Tuesday's session was "too close for comfort."

"They woke up gun owners," he said. "And I'm going to make sure that they stay woken up."

GOP Sen. Bill Stanley Jr. said he resigned his post as majority whip because of Norment's bill, but that he was voted back in shortly afterward. He said he doesn't expect to hold the leadership role moving forward.

Sen. Louise Lucas, the only senator from South Hampton Roads who sits on the Courts of Justice committee, called the special session a "complete fiasco" after the committee met briefly to send the bills to the Crime Commission.

"I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I knew (Republicans) were going to pull some kind of shenanigans," she said.

A senator since 1991, the Democrat said that in her experience, "nothing ever happens" with bills that go to the Crime Commission.

"I'm just so frustrated," she said. "I don't know what to do. I'm hoping voters will wake up."

(c)2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)