RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia's special session on gun violence got off to a chaotic start on Tuesday, with the Senate Majority Leader averting a mutiny in the Republican caucus by publicly disavowing a gun-control bill he'd proposed only the day before.
Lawmakers were summoned to the Capitol to consider a package of eight gun-control measures proposed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who has called for "votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers" in response to the killings of a dozen people by a city worker in Virginia Beach.
Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment then shocked his fellow Republicans by filing surprise legislation Monday to broadly ban guns in any government building statewide. It prompted ann 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 gotta stand for principle, so I resigned," Stanley said.
But the departure didn't last long: Stanley said Norment apologized during a Senate caucus meeting shortly before the session started, 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 he's spiking his own bill, and won't support "any measure that restricts the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens."
If Republicans remain unified, Northam's package of bills stands 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 on Tuesday morning, Northam led a group of gun-control supporters in chants of "Enough is Enough!"
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're 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 hadn't 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.