RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — 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.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam called the Republican-led Legislature to the Capitol to address gun violence in the wake of the May 31 attack that killed a dozen people in Virginia Beach. The meeting 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 proposed only a day earlier.
Lawmakers were summoned to consider a package of eight gun-control measures put forward by Northam, who called for "votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers" in response to the Virginia Beach massacre.
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.
Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment shocked his fellow Republicans by filing surprise legislation Monday to broadly ban guns in any government building statewide. That 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 chanting "Enough is enough!" It has become a refrain against gun violence at rallies nationwide after repeated mass shootings.
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.
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 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.