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Inside Virginia's Very Brief July Special Session

Gun rights activists rally outside Capitol Square before the July 9 Special Session.

Gun rights activists rally outside Capitol Square before the July 9 Special Session. Crixell Matthews/WCVE News

WCVE reporters Ben Paviour and Whittney Evans discuss a July 9 special session called by Gov. Ralph Northam to address gun control. Republicans voted to move discussions to November, angering Northam and gun reform advocates.

Transcript

Whittney Evans: From the State Capitol in Richmond, I’m Whittney Evans.

I’m joined now by state politics reporter Ben Paviour. Hi Ben.

Ben Paviour: Hi Whittney.

Evans: Ben, Virginia’s special session on gun violence ended almost as soon as it started on Tuesday. It’s a big disappointment to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who called the session after the mass shooting in Virginia Beach in May. What was Northam hoping to get out of bringing lawmakers back to Richmond?

Paviour: Northam called the session because he said lawmakers needed to go beyond thoughts and prayers. He proposed a package of gun reform bills that he said would actually help prevent these sorts of tragedies. Here he is after a rally on Tuesday morning.

Northam: People are listening. These legislators are here. They were voted into office by these people. And I think if they listen they’ll do the right thing.

Paviour: Northam had the support of hundreds of gun reform advocates, but there were also hundreds of gun rights activists on Capitol Square. Under rules set by Republican leaders, they’re actually allowed to bring firearms inside Capitol buildings if they have a concealed carry permit.

Evans: Okay, so a lot of passionate people outside the Capitol. What were lawmakers up to inside?

Paviour: Well, there was some palace intrigue among Republicans. A lot of that caucus seemed caught off guard when Sen. Tommy Norment, the GOP Senate majority leader, introduced a bill that would have banned guns in municipal buildings, which is an idea popular with Democrats.

We found out later that Norment was introducing it to make a point about how it was a bad idea--how he said it had way too many loopholes and wasn’t enforceable.

But some of his caucus didn’t like that strategy. One Senator -- Bill Stanley of Franklin County -- got so upset that he actually offered his resignation from his leadership post as the majority whip of Senate Republicans.

In the end, the Republican caucus voted not to accept Stanley’s resignation. But it exposed some tension between Norment and the more conservative wing of his caucus.

Evans: After that caucus meeting, the chambers met and the session got going. There were lots of floor speeches on both sides about the tragedy in Virginia Beach. Then Republicans threw in a twist, right?

Paviour: Yep. Republicans voted to put the special session in recess until November 18. At a press conference after, their leaders said that Northam’s whole idea of a special session was all about politics and not about helping victims of the Virginia Beach shooting. They said Northam was trying to distract everyone from what happened in February when reporters found a racist photo on his yearbook page.

Instead, Republicans are going to put all of the bills in the hands of the Virginia State Crime Commission for study. Here’s Republican Senator Mark Obenshain explaining why.

Obenshain: Quite frankly, we need to take a little bit deeper look at these issues and actually do something rather than stage manage a vote in which, you know, we're just trying to embarrass each other. We owe more to the people of Virginia.

Paviour: Not surprisingly, this move outraged Democrats. Their Senate Minority leader, Dick Saslaw, had some choice words in their own press conference.

Saslaw: That is absolute crap that we needed to wait. We needed to investigate what is here to investigate. The only thing you need to do to get a gun in Virginia is to fog up a mirror.

Evans: So what’s next?

Paviour: Elections are what’s next. Pretty important ones, given that Republicans have such narrow control over the General Assembly. Expect this issue to come up in campaign ads across the state.

In the meantime, lawmakers have until July 19 to submit bills to the crime commission, which is expected to meet sometime in August. They’ll come up with recommendations ahead of November 18, when lawmakers will return to Richmond. By that point, some of them will probably have lost their seats, and so it’ll be a lame duck session. I don’t think many people are holding their breath for breakthroughs when lawmakers return in November. But given how unpredictable this year in Virginia politics has been, you never know.

Evans: Thanks, Ben. We’ll be watching as the campaign season unfolds. You can track our coverage every day during Morning Edition and All Things Considered. We’re also online at ideastations.org/news.