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Special session on guns expected to be contentious

By ALAN SUDERMANJuly 7, 2019

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers are set to assemble Tuesday for what will likely be a contentious legislative session on gun laws.

Gov. Ralph Northam called the special session last month shortly after a Virginia Beach city employee opened fire on his coworkers at a municipal building on May 31.

Northam, a Democrat faced with a gun-friendly, Republican-controlled General Assembly in the middle of a legislative election year, is urging action on a several gun-control measures. He said lawmakers owe the victims of gun violence “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers.”

Police said Virginia Beach employee DeWayne Craddock used two semi-automatic handguns, a silencer and extended ammunition magazines to murder 12 people at a municipal building. Craddock was then killed in a gunbattle with police.

Republicans have criticized the governor — who has been politically weakened by a racist yearbook photo scandal from earlier this year— as an opportunist trying to exploit a tragedy for political gain.

Here’s a look at some of the fault lines heading into Tuesday’s special session:

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WHAT DEMOCRATS WANT:

Northam is proposing several gun-control bills, include a ban on silencers and high-capacity magazines.

The governor said he also wants mandatory, universal background checks before gun purchases; a limit of one handgun purchase per month; and a “red flag” law that would allow authorities to seize weapons from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.

Beyond the actual legislation, Democrats are looking to pin down lawmakers with recorded votes. Gun-control bills usually fail in GOP-controlled committees, with only a few legislators voting. Northam has pressured Republicans to at least allow a full floor vote on the measures.

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WHAT REPUBLICANS WANT:

Republicans have shown no appetite for taking up Northam’s suggested bills, but instead said they want focus on criminal penalties directly or indirectly related to gun crimes. That includes enacting new mandatory minimum penalties for certain repeat domestic abusers, which Republicans said would reduce the number of gun-related homicides.

Northam said in May he would no longer sign any legislation that imposes new mandatory minimum penalties, a pledge he said was part of his efforts to make Virginia more equitable for communities of color.

Another GOP proposal would make it easier for state law enforcement officials to reduce prison time for informants who provide information about gun smuggling and other related crimes.

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HEATED BACKDROP:

The special session will play out as election season heats up. All 140 legislative seats are up for grabs, and Virginia is the only state whose legislature has a reasonable chance of flipping partisan control this year. Republicans currently have narrow majorities in both the House and Senate.

Advocacy groups on both sides of the issue have spent heavily and mobilized their members in past state elections, and they are likely to do so this year. In 2015, a gun-control group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent more than $2.4 million helping Virginia Democrats.

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WILD CARD:

Guns may not be the only topic of the special session. Republicans are also pushing for a bipartisan hearing on into sexual assault allegations two women have made against Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. Democratic leaders have dismissed the idea as a political stunt, but the caucus is divided on how to treat Fairfax.

Two women earlier this year publicly accused Fairfax of sexual assault and said they want to testify before the legislature, but only if both political parties participate. Fairfax has denied any wrongdoing and said the allegations should only be investigated by law enforcement officials.

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