Some Prince William County lawmakers were riled after Tuesday’s special session to address gun control legislation ended abruptly with Republicans delaying the session until Nov. 18 -- nearly two weeks after Virginia’s statewide elections.
Republicans in the General Assembly were able to use their slim majority to postpone the vote on over 50 gun bills filed by state legislators. Instead, they referred the bills to the Virginia State Crime Commission for review and requested an investigation into the May 31 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that killed 12 people and wounded four more.
Democratic legislators called the delay a failure of leadership by Republicans to address gun violence in Virginia.
“I think they’re a bunch of cowards. They’re hiding behind procedural tricks to avoid telling the voters where they really stand on issues,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th. “Five people have been shot in my district in the last two weeks. Voters are expecting us to act now, not 132 days from now.”
In 2017, there were 1,041 firearms deaths in Virginia, or nearly three deaths per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent polling has shown that a majority of Virginians support gun control measures, and strongly support universal background checks and a ban on assault-style weapons.
Democratic lawmakers representing Prince William County were incensed by the GOP’s decision to push back the vote on bills they say would reduce the number of firearms deaths in the state including bills to strengthen background checks and ban assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, silencers and bump stocks.
“I’m extremely disappointed. I was hoping after what happened in Virginia Beach that my colleagues across the aisle would finally make a move and help us on common sense gun legislation,” said Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-31st. “It seems like it’s irrelevant to them, and we continue to lose lives.”
Republicans and Democrats in Virginia have been on opposite sides of the gun debate for decades. In January, Republicans voted down more than a dozen gun control bills proposed by Democrats. Among them was a bill to ban large-capacity magazines similar to the ones used by the Virginia Beach shooter, and a bill that would have allowed localities to ban firearms from government buildings.
Following the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007, in which 33 people died, the GOP blocked numerous gun control measures in favor of statewide mental health reforms to deal with the crisis. Republican leadership called for similar actions following Tuesday’s special session.
“Governor Northam should have followed the precedent set after the Virginia Tech murders. Having failed to follow a proven example that led to bipartisan consensus, that responsibility falls to us,” said Sen. Majority Leader Tommy Norment Jr., R-3rd, of Williamsburg.
Republican Caucus Chair Del. Tim Hugo, R-40th, who represents part of Prince William County, declined to comment on the Republicans’ decision to delay the debate on gun control until after the election.
Hugo is the last Republican representing Northern Virginia in the state House of Delegates. He narrowly won re-election in 2017 and faces a challenge this year from Dan Helmer, a Democrat and U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 2018.
Sen. Dick Black, R-13th, whose district also encompasses parts of Prince William County, said voting on gun control legislation would have been “disastrous” for Virginians, and accused Democrats of playing politics.
“We don't have the votes to stop this wave of bills designed to distract voters from the Governor's scandals,” Black said in a Facebook post.
Black is retiring at the end of this term and Democrats are hoping to flip the district. Del. John Bell, D-87th, will face Republican candidate Geary Higgins, a Loudoun County supervisor, in this year’s election for the 13th District state Senate seat.
All seats in the House and Senate are up for grabs in November.
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