Less than two hours after beginning a special session called in response to a mass shooting, Virginia lawmakers abruptly adjourned Tuesday without taking any action and postponed any movement on gun control until after the November election.
The session on gun violence called by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam got off to a chaotic start, with the Republican Senate majority leader averting a mutiny in the GOP caucus by publicly disavowing a gun-control bill he had proposed only the day before.
Lawmakers were summoned to the Capitol to consider a package of eight gun-control measures proposed by Northam, who has called for "votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers" in response to the killing of a dozen people by a city worker in Virginia Beach in late May.
House Speaker Kirk Cox said the session was premature because the shooting is still being investigated.
"The whole thing is just an election-year stunt," Cox said.
The National Rifle Association slammed the session as a "complete taxpayer-funded distraction."
Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment shocked his fellow Republicans by filing surprise legislation Monday to broadly ban guns in any government building statewide. It prompted an immediate backlash in the GOP caucus, which controls the chamber by a slim 20-19 advantage. His top vote-counter, Sen. Bill Stanley, resigned as majority whip in protest.
"Sometimes you just got to stand for principle," Stanley said.
But the departure did not last long. Stanley said Norment apologized during a Senate caucus meeting shortly before the session started and asked Stanley to reconsider his resignation. Stanley said he was the sole vote against himself when the caucus restored him as majority whip.
Norment — who is married to a lobbyist for the city of Virginia Beach — then announced that he was spiking his own bill and would not support "any measure that restricts the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens."
If Republicans had remained unified, Northam's package of bills stood little chance of passage. The GOP holds a wider majority in the House, where Republicans have accused the governor of trying to exploit the tragedy for political gain. Rather than approve gun controls, they signaled a focus on increasing penalties for wrongdoers after gun crimes have been committed.
Outside the Capitol, Northam led a group of gun-control supporters in chants of "Enough is Enough!"
This the gauntlet of gun violence prevention activists that lawmakers must walk on their way into the Virginia Capitol. The special session convenes at noon. https://t.co/9HA4A3ES6c @nbcwashington pic.twitter.com/QSWR59xFKg— Julie Carey (@JulieCareyNBC) July 9, 2019
This Roanoke man says bills supported by gun control activists would keep him from protecting his baby daughter. He wants to see all of Gov. Northam’s bills defeated in today’s special https://t.co/9HA4A3ES6c @nbcwashington pic.twitter.com/NrU8Z4oo7p— Julie Carey (@JulieCareyNBC) July 9, 2019
Activists on both sides of the gun control issue gathering at Virginia’s Capitol for today’s special legislative session. Will the Va. Beach mass shooting lead to new laws? @nbcwashington pic.twitter.com/IfywwNCUv1— Julie Carey (@JulieCareyNBC) July 9, 2019
Gun-control supporters began their demonstration on Capitol Square by reading out the names of the state's recent gun violence victims, including those in Virginia Beach. Northam then led them in the "Enough is Enough!" chant that has become a refrain against gun violence at rallies nationwide in the wake of repeated mass shootings. Others carried signs decrying the killings of children, and shouted "You vote today, we vote in November."
"Hopefully we'll be heard and the Virginia Legislature will take action to enact sensible gun laws," said Jeff Wells, 64, his voice hoarse from chanting.
A smaller group of gun rights advocates rallied across the Capitol lawn. They said many others were inside meeting with lawmakers and that a larger rally was planned Tuesday afternoon.
Some gun-rights advocates were walking around inside the Capitol with handguns in holsters openly visible, which is permitted. Visitors to the House gallery can keep their guns, and while they are not permitted on the Senate side, some lawmakers bring guns with them onto the floor.
Jim Snyder, a 69-year-old gun owner from northern Virginia, said the Virginia Beach shooting had not moved the needle on gun issues for him one bit.
"I haven't done anything wrong, and they want to take guns away from me," Snyder, vice president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
"A lot of people say, 'Well, we've got to find common ground," which means, 'We've got to find gun control that you'll accept,'" he said.
Snyder speculated that Northam called the special session to divert attention from the scandal he faced over a racist yearbook photo, or perhaps to motivate Democrats hoping to retake control of the Legislature in November.
Some people carried poster-sized signs of the photo that appeared on Northam's yearbook page decades ago, showing one person wearing blackface and another the robe and cap of the Ku Klux Klan.