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Va. Democrats slam Republicans over gun inaction; leaders say it’s too late to revisit

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) gestures as he addresses a January anti-gun-violence rally at the Capitol in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Democrats in Virginia’s House of Delegates invoked the recent school shooting in Florida to demand that Republicans revive gun-control measures that died in committee this year. But GOP leaders said it is too late in the legislative session to act.

Guns have been the one area that has resisted all compromise in a General Assembly session otherwise marked by bipartisan dealmaking. A host of bills, many of them favored by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), have disappeared in committees in the House and Senate.

Some 35 House bills related to gun control never made it out of committee, Democrats said Thursday. Those included measures to expand background checks to all gun purchases, something national Republicans — including President Trump — say they would consider.

Another measure would have established a “risk warrant,” a means for family members to work through the court system to have guns confiscated from loved ones who they fear are a danger to themselves or others.

That bill — H.B. 198, sponsored by Del. Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan Jr. (D-Fairfax) — never made it to a committee hearing, consigned to limbo by the Republican leaders of the House.

Since the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting, though, in which 17 people died in a gun attack that authorities say was carried out by a 19-year-old man, Republicans including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Vice President Pence have said they favor risk-warrant policies.

“What haunts you about H.B. 198 is that a bill like this in Florida just might have stopped Parkland,” Sullivan said Thursday in an emotional news conference with Democratic delegates. “And a bill like this in Virginia just might stop the next one. But 198 never got a hearing.”

Republican House leaders said there is no procedural way to call back up that bill or any of the other House bills before this year’s session ends March 10. At “crossover day” last month, all bills passed by the House and Senate went to the opposite chamber. Past that point, the House can take up only bills passed or changed by the Senate, said House Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). House clerk G. Paul Nardo confirmed Gilbert’s interpretation of the Assembly’s operating rules.

“That’s an excuse,” said House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville). “They have to be agreeable to doing something, and then they figure out a way to get it to the floor. If they don’t want to pass a bill, they’re going to hide behind the rules and say there’s nothing they can do.”

Standing just a few feet away, Gilbert vehemently disagreed.

“I would hope they know better than that, and clearly they do know better than that,” Gilbert said. “We’ve passed the point where we can hear House bills, and if the House Democrats told you otherwise they are either fibbing to you or they don’t understand the long-standing rules of the House.”

One way the legislature might be able to consider a late bill is if it were introduced by the governor. Northam has said that “common sense” gun control is a priority for him, but his office declined to say whether he is considering such a move.

Northam “will continue to do everything he can to advocate for common sense gun safety reform and is encouraging legislators from both sides of the aisle to revisit the solutions outlined at the beginning of the legislative session,” spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said in an email. “He and his team have reached out to Republicans in the General Assembly on the issue and continue to hope they will come to the table.”

Gilbert confirmed that Republicans have met with Northam and his staff.

“I think we’re interested in a dialogue with the governor’s office . . . on how to very thoughtfully approach these issues and not do it in a purely emotional, knee-jerk fashion,” Gilbert said. He cited bills that Republicans have passed to provide money for school safety and to permit retired law enforcement officers to serve as security guards, though he said arming teachers is not a good approach.

Legislation to keep guns out of the hands of “the wrong people” is worth considering, he said. But at this late date, he added, that would have to be in next year’s General Assembly session.

Some 20 Democratic delegates and senators formed a gun-violence prevention caucus that met Thursday for the first time to strategize on future legislation. It is led by Del. Kathleen J. Murphy (D-Fairfax) and Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria).