Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has called for “common sense” gun control laws in wake of mass shootings and other gun violence. (Steve Helber/AP)
RICHMOND — President Trump’s call this week for “common sense” gun-control laws in the wake of the most recent mass shootings echoed the language of another chief executive who recently confronted the same issue: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.
But Northam, a Democrat, was unable to get state Republican lawmakers to take up any of his gun bills in the special legislative session he convened last month following a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building. Now that Trump and other national Republicans — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — have signaled a willingness to act in the face of growing outrage as violence continues around the country, the Virginia GOP is left in an uncomfortable spot in a crucial election year.
Virginia is one of only four states with legislative elections this November and the only state where those votes will determine the balance of power in the legislature. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot, with Republicans protecting thin majorities in both chambers. The swing districts are suburban areas where increasingly urgent concern about gun violence could make the difference for voters this fall.
And national gun-control groups are making Virginia a referendum on the issue. Most prominently, Everytown for Gun Safety — the group founded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg — has hired four Richmond lobbyists and last month launched a five-figure digital ad campaign aimed at Virginia elections. The group has given Virginia Democrats almost $5 million in the past four years.
This week, after the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, that left 31 dead and dozens wounded, the national Democratic super PAC American Bridge posted a video in which an interviewer tries to get four Virginia GOP senators to take a position on particular gun-control measures.
Three of the incumbents are in suburban Richmond districts, and the fourth is in Virginia Beach, where a gunman killed 12 people at a municipal building on May 31. All four either said they opposed the measures or declined to answer. The measures were the same two that Trump and McConnell expressed interest in later in the week: expanded background checks and a “red flag” law allowing authorities to temporarily seize firearms from people deemed a risk.
After tweeting earlier this week that “common sense things can be done that are good for everyone!” Trump said Friday that he was confident he could rally Republicans around legislation to strengthen background checks. McConnell said the Senate could take up the measure when it returns from its August recess, and also mentioned considering “red flag” laws, which the Trump administration has endorsed and which have been enacted in 17 states.
“We are closely monitoring what actions Congress may take,” Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said Friday via text message. “Congress signaling their willingness to act on these issues reaffirms the need to proceed in a deliberative manner.”
Cox and other Republican leaders adjourned last month’s special General Assembly session after only 90 minutes, referring some 60 bills to the state Crime Commission for further study. The legislature is scheduled to reconvene to take the matter back up on Nov. 18 — nearly two weeks after this fall’s elections.
“The governor is glad to see national Republicans signal long-overdue action on gun violence, and he remains extremely disappointed that Virginia Republicans refused to take this action when he called them into special session in July,” Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Northam, said Friday via text message. “The governor hopes they will follow the example of national party leaders and come together to save lives.”
Virginia’s GOP leaders have said they favor increasing criminal penalties for gun violations and addressing mental health issues. House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) has proposed creating two state grant programs aimed at increasing law enforcement in violent urban neighborhoods and helping young people extract themselves from street gangs, with education and job training to start better lives.
Republicans also say they believe state laws enacted after the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech are stronger than the proposed red flag laws, enabling law enforcement or medical authorities to lock up someone who poses a threat instead of confiscating their weapons.
Earlier in the week, Northam deemed the Republican response “totally unacceptable” and urged lawmakers to return to Richmond now to debate gun-control bills.
“They’re going to sit there and talk about study — we’ve studied this long enough,” Northam said in remarks to reporters at an event in Hampton on Tuesday. “This is an emergency in Virginia.”
Republicans who don’t get that message will pay a political price, Northam said. “I want to tell the people of Virginia, if we can’t change minds, we need to change seats, and that’s why we have elections. And I would ask all Virginians to pay special attention to this election on November the fifth.”
One Republican official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations said “the chances of the special session resuming earlier [than scheduled] . . . would be slim to none.”
The official added that anytime national rhetoric heats up around a volatile issue, Virginia tends to wait to see what happens in Washington before jumping in. “The enthusiasm for taking action before the federal situation settles is traditionally low,” the Republican said.
Instead, Republicans have tried to steer attention back toward the scandals that have plagued top Virginia Democrats since the beginning of the year.
The National Republican Congressional Committee sent an email to reporters on Friday saying, “If you’re looking for something to write about during recess: remember, it’s been SIX MONTHS since Virginia Democrats lit themselves on fire with scandals.”
The email referred to controversies that have consumed the party’s leadership since February, when Northam disavowed a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page but admitted wearing blackface at a dance contest that year; Attorney General Mark Herring (D) admitted darkening his face at a college party in 1980; and two women leveled sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), who denies both charges.
Republicans argue that Northam and other Democrats are exploiting gun violence to distract from those embarrassments.
Democrats say they’re simply responding to public concern.
“Whether it’s office hours or knocking on doors in our districts or meeting constituents at the supermarket, we hear from people that doing nothing on gun violence is not an option,” House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said. “I think it’s quite telling that Trump and McConnell are talking about things like this.”