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Following Virginia Beach massacre, Gov. Ralph Northam calls special session on guns

Republicans have previously rejected Northam's gun control bills out of hand, but a top GOP lawmaker signaled Monday that he's open to a legislative debate.
Image: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks to mourners during a vigil for the victims of a shooting in Virginia Beach on June 2, 2019.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks to mourners during a vigil for the victims of a shooting in Virginia Beach on June 2, 2019.Eric Baradat / AFP - Getty Images

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is summoning lawmakers back to the state Capitol to consider a package of gun-control legislation, saying Friday's mass shooting in Virginia Beach calls for "votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers."

Northam also said Tuesday that he wants every state lawmaker go on record for or against his proposals during the special session this summer, rather than let leaders shield them from tough votes by killing them subcommittees.

"I ask that the members of the General Assembly engage in an open and transparent debate and that the bills brought before the legislature are put to a vote by the entire General Assembly," Northam said. "The nation will be watching."

The Democrat said in an Associated Press interview ahead of his announcement that he wants the Republican-controlled legislature to hear from the public about the need for "common-sense" laws. A top GOP lawmaker signaled Monday that he's open to a legislative debate, but doesn't expect Northam's bills to pass.

"Show Virginians that it doesn't matter what party you are in, we all our Virginians first, and we care about the safety and security of every Virginian no matter who they are or where they live," he added.

Virginia Beach city employee DeWayne Craddock used two semi-automatic handguns, a silencer and extended ammunition magazines on Friday to kill 12 people, all but one them colleagues he had worked with for years. Craddock was mortally wounded in an intense gunbattle with police.

Northam's bills include legislation that directly relates to Friday's shooting, such as a ban on silencers and high capacity ammunition magazines, as well as broadening the ability of local governments to limit guns in city buildings. But he said other recent shootings, including the death last month of a 9-year-old girl who was shot at a community cookout in Richmond, are also driving his call for a special session.

"It's an emergency here in Virginia, and it's time to take action," Northam told the AP. "Every one of these pieces of legislation will save lives."

Northam said he also wants votes on mandating universal background checks before gun purchases, limiting purchases to one handgun per month and a so-called red flag bill that would allow authorities to temporarily seize someone's guns if they are a shown to be threat to themselves or others.

The governor has long advocated for stricter gun control. He made the issue a top priority of his 2017 gubernatorial campaign, drawing from his experience as a pediatrician and Army doctor who has treated children and soldiers wounded by firearms.

Most of the legislation already proposed by Northam and other Democrats has failed in Virginia, where Republicans hold slim majorities in the House and Senate. This is a closely watched election year in the state, when all 140 legislative seats are up for grabs.

Virginia law doesn't give a governor any say in how a special session is conducted. While GOP Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment indicated Monday that there's some willingness to debate whether to ban large-capacity magazines, according to the Virginia Gazette, he told gun-control advocates outside his office on Monday that "nothing would have helped us in Virginia Beach."

Mourners pray during a vigil the day after 12 people were killed in a shooting at a municipal building in Virginia Beach on June 1, 2019.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Craddock appeared to have had no felony record, making him eligible to purchase guns. Government investigators identified two .45-caliber pistols used in the attack and all indications are that he purchased them legally in 2016 and 2018, said Ashan Benedict, the regional special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Friday's shooting has been Northam's first major test since a scandal over a racist photo in his medical school yearbook nearly drove him from office four months ago. The governor has been active in helping coordinate the state's response and comforting victims, while also pressing the case for stricter gun control.

A top gun rights advocate denounced the special session as "political theater," and called it "pure baloney" that silencers mask the sound of gun shots. Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said "there's really nothing other than allowing people to protect themselves until the police get there that would have worked."

In his AP interview, the governor flatly denied that he's "playing politics."

"I'm bringing people to the special session to save lives," Northam said.