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Gun debate ends abruptly in Virginia as GOP-controlled legislature adjourns after 90 minutes

RICHMOND — Virginia’s Republican-controlled General Assembly abruptly adjourned a special legislative session on gun control after 90 minutes Tuesday without considering a single bill.

Hundreds of gun-control activists and gun rights protesters who had packed the State Capitol after lobbying and demonstrating all morning were stunned. “Gutless bastards!” one man shouted from the House of Delegates gallery.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered the session in the wake of the May 31 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building in which 12 people were killed. Lawmakers had filed some 30 bills aimed at restricting gun use or lethality or stiffening penalties for gun law violations.

Republican leaders in the state House and Senate said they would refer all bills to the bipartisan Virginia State Crime Commission for study and recommendation, and then reconvene Nov. 18 — after a high-stakes state election in which all 140 legislative seats are on the ballot.

“The call for this session was premature,” House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) told reporters moments after both chambers adjourned on party-line votes.

Cox accused Northam of “an election-year stunt” and said gun violence needs more thorough study.

The gun issue is likely to supercharge what is already shaping up to be a pivotal election year in Virginia. 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.

Democrats, who are hoping to take control of both chambers for the first time in more than 20 years, wasted no time Tuesday in embracing gun control as a rallying cry for their base.

“The Republicans in this state are totally controlled — I mean 100 percent controlled — by the National Rifle Association,” Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) fumed in the Capitol’s marble-lined hallway.

“This is far from over,” he said. “In the end, let me assure you, we are going to prevail, one way or another.”

House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), who had been consulting with Republicans even after the session started about what the rules of engagement would be, was almost shaking with anger.

“Shocking,” she said. “Disturbing. But it’ll be up to the voters in November now.”

For Republicans, guns are also an animating issue. The party’s conservative activists are deeply protective of Second Amendment rights, even as polling shows that a majority of Virginians statewide favor some form of restrictions.

The GOP’s Tuesday adjournment strategy was closely coordinated — and closely guarded — among House and Senate Republican leaders. People familiar with the decision said it came together in the past week.

Referring the bills to the commission keeps them alive but defers action to a lame-duck legislature. The action also allowed Republicans to claim the mantle of an unlikely figurehead: They spoke admiringly of former governor Tim Kaine (D), who created a blue-ribbon panel to study legislative solutions after the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007.

“I remember the statesmanship of then-Governor Kaine,” Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said. “He chose not to take a political posture.”

But in recent weeks, Kaine — now a U.S. senator — had urged lawmakers to pass Northam’s package of gun-control measures.

Kaine spokeswoman Sarah Peck recalled that Republicans refused one of the Virginia Tech panel’s chief recommendations: closing a loophole that allows some gun purchases to take place without background checks.

“Thousands of Virginians have died by gun violence since the Virginia Tech shooting, yet Republican legislators just showed us that they are still too cowardly to make the meaningful gun safety reforms recommended by the panel,” she said.

Northam said Republicans had abdicated their duty. “I expected them to do what their constituents elected them to do — discuss issues and take votes,” Northam said in a statement. “An average of three Virginians die each day due to gun violence. That means hundreds of Virginians may die between today and November 18. . . . It is shameful and disappointing that Republicans in the General Assembly refuse to do their jobs.”

'We're ready to vote'
The special session had focused national attention on Richmond. The NRA held town hall meetings around the state in the weeks leading up to it and seemed clued-in on the Republicans’ strategy, putting out a statement of support moments after the votes.

National gun-violence-prevention groups helped build turnout for “roundtables” the Northam administration staged around the state to rally support for gun control. Gun-control advocacy groups Brady, Giffords and Moms Demand Action were among the organizations that helped turn out hundreds of people Tuesday for rallies and demonstrations.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Friday had sent a letter to Northam pressing for “bold action” to stop the flow of guns from the commonwealth into the District. She called guns purchased in Virginia a “key driver of gun crime” in Washington.

Citing statistics from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, D.C. officials said the number of guns seized in the city and traced to Virginia has increased in recent years, totaling nearly 600 last year.

Norment, the Senate majority leader, said Northam’s crusade was “political theater” to distract from scandals that have engulfed him since early this year.

Northam, a pediatrician, drew national scorn in January when he made unclear remarks about abortion that led conservatives to accuse him of favoring infanticide. Then a racist photo came to light from his 1984 medical school yearbook.

He first took responsibility for the photo, then disavowed it — but admitted wearing blackface for a dance contest that same year. Most Democrats called on him to resign.

Now Norment and other Republicans say Northam is exploiting the Virginia Beach shooting to obscure those lingering issues as elections draw closer.

In Capitol Square on Tuesday, some gun-toting protesters held aloft images of the photo from Northam’s yearbook, which featured a person in Ku Klux Klan robes and another in blackface at what appeared to be a costume party. Printed atop the blown-up image was the caption: “The man behind the sheet wants your guns.”

On Monday, Norment had seemed to support one aspect of Northam’s effort, proposing a bill to ban all firearms from municipal buildings around the state. But he faced a sharp backlash from the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League and GOP colleagues — even prompting Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (Franklin) to threaten to resign as majority whip. Soon after the Senate convened Tuesday, Norment withdrew his measure.

“I do not support — nor will I support — any measure that restricts the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” he said, adding later it had been a ruse.

The Republican strategy gave Democrats in the House about an hour to speak on the need for gun control.

Del. Chris L. Hurst (D-Montgomery) invoked the death of his girlfriend, Alison Parker, a journalist who was shot and killed on live television in 2015 by a former co-worker. Describing how he had agonized ever since about whether he could have done anything to protect her, he concluded that it was now his responsibility as a lawmaker.

“We’re ready to act, we’re ready to vote, and we’re ready to change the laws to save Virginians’ lives,” Hurst thundered. When he added that it’s “time for us to pull our fingers out of our ears,” Democrats and spectators in the gallery erupted in cheers and applause.

But just as it seemed the House would debate individual bills in committees, Republican leaders called for adjournment until Nov. 18. Flustered Democrats asked them to repeat the motion, unsure of what was happening.

On the Senate side, there was not even time for speeches.

Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford) rose to make a motion to adjourn until Nov. 18. Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) tried to weigh in, but under Senate rules the motion was “non-debatable.”

In a party-line vote of 20-18, the motion passed. Senators quickly dispersed.

Within minutes, Jason Ouimet, acting executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, released a statement applauding the House and Senate Republican leadership and calling the special session “a complete taxpayer-funded distraction.”

Opposing rallies
Earlier Tuesday, armed militia members and gun-control activists had swarmed the grounds and streets outside the State Capitol.

Men in camouflage toting assault rifles or swinging holstered handguns from their hips gathered not far from a heavily female crowd wearing red “Moms Demand Action” T-shirts. Busloads of activists rolled into the city, their passengers bracing for a long day.

Jeff Squires, 57, was among the pro-gun demonstrators. He said he wanted legislators to hear firsthand from gun owners who feel under siege.

“It’s an incremental taking-away of rights,” Squires said. “There’s an agenda to take away guns, and this is how they’re doing it. I understand there’s violence. It’s not just with guns, though. It’s people with those guns.”

At the nearby bell tower in Capitol Square, Northam, in a suit and tie despite the summer heat, addressed an hour-long peace vigil, leading several hundred people in chants of “Enough is enough!”

The governor held hands with African American community leaders, and they sang “We Shall Overcome.” He was joined by Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney (D), as well as the city’s police chief, schools superintendent and other officials. Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) also stood with Northam, as did state Sens. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) and Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond).

Richmond NAACP President James Minor called on attendees to “support our governor” and his gun-control efforts. And he sent a political message in biblical language: “If you cannot do right by the people, if you cannot do right by the children, then ye shall be removed.”

Stoney told the crowd: “There will be a day of reckoning. If not today, then it will be at the ballot box in November.”

Republicans said later that they appreciated the outpouring of public sentiment.

“It is really important for us to not question the sincerity of the advocates who descended upon the Capitol today, on both sides of the issue,” said Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham), the chairman of the bipartisan crime commission that will study proposed legislation.

“What we are trying to do is introduce an evidence-based process,” Obenshain said. “One in which we can, with calm deliberation, look at the issue, the underlying causes, and what we can truly do that’s actually making a difference in making communities safe across Virginia.”

That didn’t satisfy some activists.

Andy Parker, Alison Parker’s father, said he was dumbfounded by the quick adjournment.

“I didn’t expect much, but I didn’t expect this,” he said in an interview in the Capitol afterward. “It really is just a disgraceful act of cowardice. . . . I really think it’s going to backfire on them.”