RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Less than two hours after beginning a special session called in response to a mass shooting, Virginia lawmakers abruptly adjourned Tuesday and postponed any movement on gun laws until after the November election.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam summoned the Republican-led Legislature to the Capitol to address gun violence in the wake of the May 31 attack that killed a dozen people in Virginia Beach. He put forward a package of eight gun-control measures and called for “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers” in response to the massacre.
But not a single vote was cast on the legislation. Republican leaders said the session was premature and politically motivated. They assigned the state’s bipartisan crime commission to study policy proposals that might have prevented the shooting.
In response, angry Democrats said Republicans were beholden to gun manufactures and afraid of passing commonsense laws they know will save lives.
It was a familiar outcome in a stalled debate that plays out yearly in Virginia on an issue that has divided the nation for more than two decades.
“I wasn’t expecting much, but I wasn’t expecting this,” said Andy Parker, whose journalist daughter, Alison Parker, was shot to death on live TV in Virginia in 2015, along with a cameraman.
“This is just a complete, disgraceful act of cowardice by the Republicans ... And I think it’s going to backfire on them,” he said.
GOP House Speaker Kirk Cox said the governor should have called for a blue-ribbon commission to study gun and mental health issues, similar to what U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine did as governor following a 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech that left 32 people dead and more than a dozen wounded.
Richard Keene, a 51-year-old gun owner from Chesterfield, said the session turned out to be “a lot of hype for nothing.”
“I’m a little disappointed in everyone, actually,” he said. “I don’t feel like the common, normal person, the normal American, is represented anymore. It’s frustrating.”
Keene said that while he doesn’t think “one more law in the books” would have prevented the Virginia Beach shooting, he does believe there is “common ground for the common good” when it comes to guns.
The meeting got off to a chaotic start, with the Republican Senate majority leader averting a mutiny in the GOP caucus by publicly disavowing a gun-control bill he proposed only a day earlier.
On Monday, the leader, Tommy Norment, shocked fellow Republicans by filing surprise legislation to broadly ban guns in any government building statewide. That prompted an immediate backlash in the GOP caucus, which controls the chamber by a slim 20-19 advantage. His top vote-counter, Sen. Bill Stanley, resigned as majority whip in protest.
But the departure did not last long. Stanley said Norment apologized and asked Stanley to reconsider his resignation. The caucus quickly restored him to his position, and announced that he would throw out his own bill.
If Republicans had remained unified, Northam’s package stood little chance of passage. The GOP holds a wider majority in the House, where Republicans have accused the governor of trying to exploit the tragedy for political gain. Rather than approve gun controls, they signaled a focus on increasing penalties for wrongdoers after gun crimes have been committed.
Outside the Capitol, Northam led a group of gun-control supporters chanting “Enough is enough!” It has become a refrain against gun violence at rallies nationwide after repeated mass shootings.
After the adjournment, Northam issued a statement saying it was “shameful and disappointing” that Republicans “refuse to do their jobs and take immediate action to save lives.”
The Virginia Beach attack began when a civil engineer opened fire in a municipal building. The assailant was killed in a gunfight with police.
In calling for gun-control legislation, Northam also cited the fatal shooting of 9-year-old Markiya Dickson in a Richmond park during a May 26 cookout.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said Republicans were “not just spineless but flat-out cowardly” and that they had “dishonored the victims of gun violence across Virginia.”
A smaller group of gun-rights advocates rallied across the Capitol lawn. They said many others were inside meeting with lawmakers and that a larger rally was planned Tuesday afternoon.
Some gun-rights advocates were walking around inside the Capitol with handguns openly visible in holsters, which is permitted. Visitors to the House gallery can keep their guns, and while they are not permitted on the Senate side, some lawmakers bring guns with them onto the floor.
Jim Snyder, a 69-year-old gun owner from northern Virginia, said the Virginia Beach shooting had not moved the needle on gun issues for him one bit.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, we’ve got to find common ground,’ which means, ‘We’ve got to find gun control that you’ll accept,’” said Snyder, vice president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
Snyder speculated that Northam called the special session to divert attention from the scandal over a racist yearbook photo, or perhaps to motivate Democrats hoping to retake control of the Legislature in November.
Some people carried poster-sized signs of the photo that appeared on Northam’s yearbook page decades ago, showing one person wearing blackface and another the robe and cap of the Ku Klux Klan.