Just days after a gunman armed with two semi-automatic handguns opened fire at a government building, killing 12 of his former co-workers and wounding several other people, Virginia governor Ralph Northam on Tuesday called for a special legislative session, citing what he called an urgent need for common-sense gun laws in the state.
The Virginia Beach massacre, whose perpetrator had resigned from the state government just hours before returning to wreak havoc, is only the latest gun-related horror Virginians have experienced in recent days.
Late last month, Markiya Simone Dickson, a 9-year-old girl, was shot and killed by a stray bullet while on a pony ride in a Richmond park. “We weren’t even nowhere near the basketball court. That just shows you bullets have no names on them,” the young girl’s father, Mark Whitfield, told NBC12.
Northam said Dickson’s murder was a driving factor behind his call for legislative action, NBC News reported.
While specifics of the Virginia Beach shooting, including a fuller explanation of the gunman’s motive, are still unknown, Northam wants to move ahead with a package of measures that would include a ban on silencers and high capacity ammunition magazines, both of which were used in Friday’s mass shooting. He’s also proposing increasing restrictions on guns in city government buildings.
Northam also is seeking additional measures, including mandatory universal background checks before gun purchases, limiting purchases to one handgun per month, and instituting a red flag law, which permits authorities to temporarily seize a person’s guns if there is credible reason to suspect they pose a threat.
Such red flag laws are the kind of legislation that might have prevented many of the mass shootings that have grabbed headlines in recent years. When applied effectively, they can prevent shooting deaths committed by the kind of person who could pass a background check with flying colors, but who later raises a credible public alarm.
Northam, who has a background as a pediatrician and army doctor and who has treated children and soldiers wounded by guns, has been a very outspoken advocate for gun reform. The issue was among his top concerns during his 2017 gubernatorial campaign. With Republican lawmakers holding a slim majority in both houses of Virginia’s legislature, however, reforming gun policy has thus far eluded him.
In the wake of these recent shooting deaths, the chance to take meaningful action has renewed hope. The Virginia Gazette reported Monday that GOP Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment suggested that interest in banning large-capacity magazines had picked up in recent days. However, Norment also told protestors that nothing would have prevented Friday’s attack, discounting the possibility that a red flag law might have prevented the shootings.
Northam’s ability to shepherd such legislation through what could be a contentious special session is also complicated by the fact that the governor continues to be embroiled in a scandal related to a racist photo posted in his medical school year book.
The controversy has detractors suggesting that his call for swift action is really just a cynical face-saving gambit. Virginia House of Delegates speaker Kirk Cox (R) was one of them, telling reporters that Northam’s call for a special legislative session was “hasty and suspect when considered against the backdrop of the last few months,” and vowing to push for mandatory minimum sentences for gun crime instead.
House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler Corn responded to Cox, branding his effort as a ploy to thwart Northam.
“I was deeply disappointed to then see the House Speaker’s statement that House Republicans will push for mandatory minimums in this special session, after the Governor has made it clear that he will not sign any such legislation,” she said, adding, “This special session is about saving lives, and it is shameful for House Republicans to use this valuable opportunity to play political games.”
But Northam insists that the crisis is genuine and that urgent intervention is needed.
“It’s an emergency here in Virginia, and it’s time to take action,” Northam said. “Every one of these pieces of legislation will save lives.”
This is a breaking news story and has been updated as more information became available.