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Va. Gov. Northam Asks Lawmakers To Try To Tighten Gun Laws

NOEL KING, HOST:

There was a mass shooting in Virginia Beach last week. And Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, says he'll call lawmakers back to the state's capital to try and tighten gun control laws in Virginia. Northam says not enough has changed since 2007, when a student at Virginia Tech killed 32 people. Ben Paviour with member station WCVE in Richmond has this story.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Catherine Koebel grew up in Blacksburg, Va. She says she watched the Virginia Tech killings there from afar with horror. In 2009, she became a gun control advocate in Richmond alongside those who lost family members in the Tech shooting. A lot of lawmakers weren't eager to talk to them.

CATHERINE KOEBEL: Even Democrats would, like, kind of turn their eyes down and kind of, like, not want to talk to them and run away in shame.

PAVIOUR: Koebel says there's been a sea change among Democratic lawmakers since then.

KOEBEL: That sea change has happened not because of some sort of, like, magic, but because people have been putting their foot in the rear ends of legislators consistently (laughter).

PAVIOUR: But even if attitudes among Democrats have changed in favor of stricter gun control, the laws haven't. If anything, they've become more lax after former Republican Governor Bob McDonnell signed legislation in 2012 that reversed a law limiting Virginians to purchase one handgun per month. This year, a Republican-led subcommittee followed what has become an annual tradition of quietly voting down over a dozen Democratic gun control bills. For Governor Northam and other Democrats, Friday's shooting shows the need for stricter laws now. Here's Northam at a press conference on Tuesday.

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RALPH NORTHAM: It is unforgivable to turn our municipal centers, our schools, our churches and synagogues and mosque into battlefields.

PAVIOUR: Northam says he'll ask lawmakers to take up many of the bills that failed to pass this year. That includes mandatory universal background checks and allowing local governments to ban firearms in municipal buildings.

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NORTHAM: I will be asking for votes and laws not thoughts and prayers.

PAVIOUR: Northam appeared alongside a slew of Virginia Democrats, first time he's done so since a racist photo on his yearbook page surfaced in February. The state's Republican speaker of the House Kirk Cox seemed to allude to that in a statement. He called the timing of Northam's special session, quote, "hasty and suspect." He said the GOP would focus instead on stricter mandatory minimum sentence laws. And Republican State Senator Bill DeSteph of Virginia Beach says it's too soon to talk about gun control.

BILL DESTEPH: We truly need to bury the dead before we have that conversation. We should be focused on planning our funerals.

PAVIOUR: He isn't convinced that new legislation will make a difference.

DESTEPH: And no gun control laws would have stopped what happened Friday in my district.

PAVIOUR: DeSteph is one of a handful of Republicans facing tough reelections this year in districts that have gotten a few shades bluer. And polling shows some measures proposed by Democrats, like background checks at gun shows, are popular with Virginians from all parties. Right now, Democrats' hands are tied by the Republican-led legislature, but with all 140 seats up for reelection this November, Northam and his party could soon get their way.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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