As a member of the Virginia House of Delegates’ Militia, Police and Public Safety committee for the past four years, Del. John Bell has had a front-row seat in the venue where gun legislation goes to die in Richmond.
By Bell’s count, the Republican-controlled committee has killed 300 gun-control measures since 2016. They include the regulars, such as bills to ban bump stocks and high-capacity magazines and reinstate Virginia’s one-gun-a month rule. But the subcommittee also regularly shoots down bills that seem less contentious. As examples, Bell, D-87th, cited a bill to eliminate the sales tax on gun safes, to encourage people to lock up their weapons, as well as a measure that would allow localities to ban guns from public libraries.
The last was proposed by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-70th, who Bell said talked of people toting weapons into Richmond-area libraries and intimidating library patrons in the process.
But each of those bills – even the one about guns in libraries – died swift deaths in the six-member subcommittee, where Republicans outnumber Democrats four to two.
Still, Bell said last week he’s feeling somewhat hopeful about the special session Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has called to discuss gun-control bills on Tuesday, July 9.
“Frankly we have a problem with gun violence. I wish we could set party politics aside and come together and find some solutions,” Bell said. “I’m not advocating we need to take people’s guns away but I’m advocating that we need to do something about this problem.”
Other state legislators who represent Prince William County are not as optimistic. Del. Danica Roem, D-13th, said she isn’t holding out much hope the Republican leadership will shift its position.
Roem recalled that even a bill to designate a special license plate to end gun violence “turned into a fiasco” of eye-roll-inducing bickering before eventually passing with a few amendments.
Roem, who was elected to the House of Delegates in 2017, said she has only voted on one other measure related to guns – a resolution that unsuccessfully sought to keep guns out of the House of Delegates’ spectator gallery. It too died on a party-line vote.
“Every gun violence prevention bill. All of them. All of them die in party-line votes,” Roem said.
During a stop at Possum Point last week, Northam acknowledged that in the Republican-controlled General Assembly most gun-safety bills are quickly dispatched in early-morning subcommittee meetings, never getting a full hearing on the House or Senate floor.
But he said he’s convinced the Virginia Beach tragedy – as well as pressure from voters – could turn the tide.
“We had a horrific tragedy this weekend in Virginia Beach. We lost 12 precious lives. We have four individuals who are fighting for their lives,” Northam said. “Over the last year in Virginia, we’ve lost over 1,000 individuals to gun violence and you know, Virginians have spoken. They want us to act.”
Northam said he “encourages” voters to contact their legislators about gun-safety bills and urged lawmakers to listen.
“I’m convinced if this legislation can get to the floor, where everybody can vote on them, and not get killed in early-morning subcommittees, then these pieces will pass… that’s what I expect to happen,” he said.
Northam announced the special session four days after the May 31 shooting in a Virginia Beach municipal building left 13 people dead, including the gunman.
The shooter was a City of Virginia Beach employee. He used a .45-caliber handgun with extended magazines and a suppressor — also known as a silencer — to muffle the firing sounds. The use of the silencer, which witnesses said made the shots sound like a nail gun, likely kept some people from fleeing the building more quickly, according to news reports.
Northam said he will use the special session to push what he calls “common-sense” gun-control measures, such as instating universal background checks as well as bans on assault weapons, suppressors, bump stocks and high-capacity magazines.
Northam said he expects bipartisan support for such bills, just as both Republicans and Democrats eventually came together earlier this year to demand that Dominion Energy safely close its coal ash ponds. Northam was at the Possum Point power plant outside Dumfries to sign a bill to that effect.
“This is the way things happen in Virginia when people from both sides of the aisle come together,” Northam said. “And yes, I expect people from both sides of the aisle to come together and do what’s in the best interest of people in Virginia, and that is to save lives.”
Roem said she’d most like to see the General Assembly take up the so-called “red flag bill,” or HB198, that would allow Virginians to seek an emergency protective order to temporarily remove a firearm from someone deemed to be suicidal or at risk of hurting someone else.
Similar measures have garnered bipartisan support in other states, including Indiana and Florida, Roem noted.
“This is one where it’s not only warranted, it’s really obvious if someone is an immediate danger in terms of hurting another person,” Roem said.
Without mentioning the red-flag bill in particular, Del. Tim Hugo, the only Republican delegate representing parts of Prince William and Fairfax counties, said he has “consistently voted … to keep firearms out of the hands of violent criminals and the mentally ill.”
“When our legislature reconvenes for the special session I will once again work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on any legislation that I believe will keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill,” he added. “Furthermore, I intend to work on legislation to toughen penalties for those who use firearms to commit crimes.”
But whether that sentiment translates into actual support for Northam’s proposals remains to be seen.
Technically, the Republicans, who control both chambers by just two seats, could agree to open the session and then close it immediately without considering any new legislation. Or they could choose to only debate bills they that take a tougher-on-crime approach, as Hugo suggested.
Del. Luke Torian, D-52nd, said he hoped both parties would find some measure of common ground.
“I think the citizens are looking for the General Assembly to do something fast … I don’t think we should hold a special session without coming out with something positive for the commonwealth,” Torian said.
Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-31st, echoed that sentiment.
“For me, inaction is enabling these acts of violence to occur and we need to do something,” Guzman said.
“I think now that it has hit home, I hope my Republican colleagues … would now act on these measures,” she added. “If they don’t, they are going to have to do some explaining to their constituents and the families of these victims.”
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com