Va. Governor Calls for Special Gun-Control Session

ATF says it can't release info on shooter's silencer

Gov. Ralph Northam
Gov. Ralph Northam / Getty Images
June 5, 2019

Virginia's governor Ralph Northam (D.) called for a special session of the state legislature in order to take up a collection of gun-control proposals mostly unrelated to last week's attack in Virginia Beach where 12 people were murdered. He has yet to specify when the session will take place.

"This weekend's tragedy, as well as the tragedies that happen every day across Virginia, must instill in us a new level of urgency to act," Northam said in a press conference. "If we can save one life because we acted now, it is worth it. And so, by the power vested in me by Article IV, Section 6, and Article V, Section 5 of the Constitution of Virginia, I will summon the members of the Senate and the House of Delegates to meet in Special Session for the purpose of passing common sense public safety laws."

Northam's gun-control package includes universal background checks, a ban on "assault weapons," a red flag law, child access restrictions, and a number of other new measures that were unrelated to the events that unfolded in Virginia Beach. The governor also called for a ban on bump stocks, possession of which was already outlawed by the federal government earlier this year.

The gun-control package also includes a ban on silencers—devices that muffle the sound of gunshots to a degree but do not actually silence them. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives confirmed on Monday that a silencer was recovered at the scene of the Virginia Beach shooting alongside two .45 caliber handguns. Michael Boyer, an ATF spokesperson, told the Washington Free Beacon the handguns were traced back to purchases made by the shooter but said the agency could not release any information related to the ownership of the silencer.

"We are not able to disclose to the public, or even to the local police department, whether the silencer has been registered or has not been registered or was lawfully possessed or was not lawfully possessed," Boyer told the Free Beacon. "There's no exception written into the statute that would allow disclosure even if the individual is deceased."

Boyer explained this was due to the fact that the National Firearms Act, which heavily regulates silencers, machineguns, and some other firearms, falls under federal tax law and the registration records contained within it are protected from public disclosure the same way other tax documents, like tax returns, are protected. Boyer said he did not know if the silencer recovered in Virginia Beach was homemade.

Gov. Northam has kept a low profile ever since a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page was unearthed in January. He refused to resign over the picture but has mostly kept out of the news since it was released. His call for a special session to pass new gun-control measures was met with immediate opposition from Republican lawmakers who control both houses of the Virginia legislature.

Virginia House of Delegates speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican, questioned the governor's motivation in calling for a special session and said the legislature would focus on tougher sentences for gun crimes instead of new gun-control measures.

"The Governor's call to Special Session is hasty and suspect when considered against the backdrop of the last few months," Cox said in a statement. "While the Governor can call a special session, he cannot specify what the General Assembly chooses to consider or how we do our work. We intend to use that time to take productive steps to address gun violence by holding criminals accountable with tougher sentences—including mandatory minimums."

Northam did not address his blackface controversy during his comments on the special session but did say immediate political action was the appropriate response to Friday’s shooting.

"This weekend's tragedy, as well as the tragedies that happen every day across Virginia, must instill in us a new level of urgency to act," he said. "If we can save one life because we acted now, it is worth it. There will be those—there are already those—who say it's too soon after the tragedy to talk about responses. I would ask those people, when is the right time?"

Cox, however, said Republicans would not pursue Northam's gun-control package but offer their own alternative instead.

"We believe addressing gun violence starts with holding criminals accountable for their actions, not infringing on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens," Cox said. "When the Special Session convenes, Republicans will put forward a package of legislation to stiffen penalties for those who use firearms to commit crimes, including mandatory minimum sentences. These steps, combined with our ongoing efforts to strengthen the mental and behavioral health system, are the best ways to keep our communities safe from those who commit violence with guns."

With Republicans in control of both houses, it appears unlikely Northam will get the gun-control measures he has called for.