RICHMOND — A powerful Republican lawmaker has opened the door to one type of gun restriction as lawmakers and interest groups converge Tuesday on the State Capitol for a special legislative session on gun control.
Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), the chamber’s majority leader, proposed a bill that would ban firearms from local government buildings around the state and make any violation a felony. State law now bans guns only in courthouses, and violation is a misdemeanor.
Norment’s bill, which caught GOP colleagues off guard, goes further than a similar measure proposed by a Republican delegate. Both are the strongest signs that some GOP lawmakers might support at least one priority set by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) when he called the General Assembly back to work.
Northam ordered the special session in the wake of the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach in which 12 people were killed. Republicans who control the legislature have stymied gun control bills year after year and have accused Northam of trying to capitalize on tragedy for political gain.
This is a pivotal election year in Virginia. All 140 seats in the legislature are on the ballot in November, and Democrats are hoping to take control of both chambers for the first time in more than 20 years. Republicans have a 51-48 edge in the House of Delegates and a 20-19 advantage in the Senate, with one vacancy in each chamber.
That dynamic puts even more heat into the incendiary issue of gun control, which animates the base of each party. Hundreds of advocates on both sides are expected to be at the Capitol by the time House and Senate gavel in at noon Tuesday.
Gun rights activists plan to “muster” at 8:30 a.m. outside a state office building, then fan out — many of them armed — to lobby lawmakers. Around the same time, groups in favor of gun control will hold a vigil nearby on Capitol Square, with Northam expected to attend.
The big question has been whether anything will happen during the session — which could last a day or a week or drag on longer.
Bills began to pour into the legislative hoppers on Monday. Democrats filed a series of measures, backed by Northam, aimed at reducing the availability or lethality of firearms. His priorities include a ban on devices that make guns fire faster or hold more bullets; limiting handgun purchases to one per month; instituting universal background checks; and allowing courts to seize weapons from someone deemed to be a threat.
Republicans filed several measures designed to stiffen penalties for violations of gun laws. Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) introduced bills to increase sentences for brandishing anything that even looks like a firearm at law enforcement officers, for violating a protective order while armed, and for concealing a firearm while committing a felony.
Raising mandatory minimum sentences is a route that Northam has already said he opposes, arguing that it disproportionately affects people of color.
Norment could not be reached for comment Monday. At least one other Republican introduced bills aimed at tightening gun laws, although much more modestly than the Democratic proposals. Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) proposed a measure that would allow localities to ban firearms in buildings used for governmental purposes, as long as they also included steps such as metal detectors to keep people from sneaking in weapons.
Davis also proposed making it slightly harder to get a concealed-carry permit, eliminating the option to demonstrate competence by taking an online or video test in favor of an in-person demonstration.
Some constituents say they like those steps, Davis said, but he has gotten pushback from the National Rifle Association and the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
Davis said he’s looking for middle ground. “Gun safety and protecting the rights conveyed by the Second Amendment don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” said Davis, who noted that he was a competitive shooter in high school. “I think it’s common sense.”
Both sides of the issue have spent the past few weeks rallying public support. The NRA held a series of closed “town hall” meetings around the state, while Northam’s cabinet secretaries hosted more than half a dozen “round tables.”
On Monday, the NRA invited media to a Richmond gun range to demonstrate sound suppression devices, which Northam wants to ban. The group contends the devices are needed to protect the hearing of service members, hunters and other recreational shooters.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League instructed supporters where to “muster” before lobbying lawmakers on Tuesday morning. In an online advisory, the group noted that it’s legal to carry firearms inside the General Assembly office building but that they should notify guards as they approach the metal detectors.
On Monday evening, a progressive group called the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County held a town hall meeting featuring gun violence survivors — including a student who escaped last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Several groups including the NAACP, the Richmond Peace Education Center and Youth Survivors of Gun Violence planned to join Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney on Tuesday morning for a “unity vigil.”
Republicans have accused Northam of trying to use the Virginia Beach shooting to rehabilitate his political image. Northam has been under a cloud since February, when a racist photo came to light from his 1984 medical school yearbook page.
He first apologized for the photo, then disavowed it but admitted wearing blackface at an event that same year. Since defying calls to resign, Northam has said he would dedicate his term in office to fighting racial disparities.
Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), who this year began wearing a handgun on her hip on the Senate floor, called the session a “political stunt.”
She said it was “a waste of taxpayer money” since the GOP-controlled legislature this year already killed gun control bills similar to what the governor is proposing.
On Sunday, Northam attended a black church with Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) and urged the congregation to support his gun control efforts. He has stressed that gun violence is not exclusive to mass shootings, which get a lot of media attention, but is a fact of daily life in many low-income and minority communities.
Democrats, many of whom called on Northam to resign earlier this year, have rallied around him over gun control, which they believe is popular among Virginians.
Northam wants the legislation to be voted on by the full House and Senate, instead of the usual practice of killing the bills in committees, but prospects seem dim.
Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), the House minority leader, said she had gotten no assurances from Republican leaders that they would allow floor votes.
“I’m hopeful,” Filler-Corn said. “I commend the governor for moving forward. Doing nothing is not an option.”
Sen. William Stanley (R-Franklin) filed a half-dozen bills ahead of the session, including requiring employers to report workplace violence and requiring social media platforms to report threats.
“The bills are pouring in, which means this should be a serious session, taken seriously,” Stanley said. “Let’s have a good debate.”