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After Virginia Beach Shooting, Gov. Ralph Northam Calls Session On Gun Violence

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference Saturday about the mass shooting in Virginia Beach the day before.
Eric Baradat
AFP/Getty Images
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference Saturday about the mass shooting in Virginia Beach the day before.

Updated at 12:32 p.m. ET

In the aftermath of a mass shooting that killed 12 people in Virginia Beach, Va., Gov. Ralph Northam is calling a special legislative session to address gun violence.

"We must do more than give our thoughts and prayers; we must give Virginians the action they deserve," Northam said during a news conference Tuesday morning in Richmond, Va.

Northam said he is summoning the Republican-controlled Virginia General Assembly to consider what he describes as "common-sense public safety laws" — including universal background checks; bans on assault-style weapons and bump stocks, as well as sound suppressors like the one used in the Virginia Beach shooting; requirements to report lost or stolen firearms; and expanded authority for local municipalities to regulate firearms, including in government buildings.

The governor's spokeswoman said Northam's office is hoping to arrange the special session for late June.

"I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers," Northam said. The former Army physician added, "I have seen firsthand what a bullet does to a body, and I saw it again this weekend."

In response to Northam's announcement, Republican Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox tweeted that the governor "can call a special session, but he cannot specify what the General Assembly chooses to consider. We intend to use that time to take productive steps to address gun violence by holding criminals accountable with tougher sentences — including mandatory minimums."

State Senate Democratic leader Dick Saslaw said in a statement, "Twelve years ago, Virginia experienced (at the time) the deadliest shooting in American history, in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech. In the years since 2007, I've watched as our Commonwealth has done little to nothing to address the systemic problem guns have in our society."

The victims of the shooting Friday afternoon included 11 city employees and a contractor.

The gunman, who had worked as a civil engineer for the city for nine years, resigned for what he described as "personal reasons" hours before the shooting. He died after an extended gun battle with police.

"It is wrong, it is outrageous, it is unforgivable to turn our municipal centers, our schools, our churches and synagogues and mosques into battlefields," Northam said. "No one should go to work, to school or to church wondering if they will come home."

He noted that schoolchildren regularly take part in active shooter drills and that gun violence has come to be seen as a "new normal."

"That's what our society has come to, because we have failed to act on gun violence," Northam said.

The Democratic governor noted that he had proposed several similar gun control measures during this year's legislative session, but none passed.

The shooting represents the first major test of Northam's leadership since a scandal earlier this year involving a blackface photo on Northam's medical school yearbook page. The photo and Northam's handling of the situation led to multiple calls for his resignation from within his own party. After initially apologizing for the photo, Northam denied appearing in it. A review by Eastern Virginia Medical School was unable to determine conclusively whether Northam was in the photo.

Northam appeared alongside Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney Gen. Mark Herring, each of whom were embroiled in their own scandals that seemed to cascade from Richmond after the yearbook photo surfaced in February. Two women have accused Fairfax of sexual assault, which he has denied. And Herringcame forward to apologize for appearing in blackface as part of a costume when he was a 19-year-old college student.

As he called the special session, Northam dismissed the notion that it's too soon to talk about policy in the aftermath of the Virginia Beach shooting.

"Delay only means what it always means," he said. "That there will be a next time."

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Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.