Over a handful of days in January, Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly saw all of their gun-control bills die.
None of them ever reached the full floor, where all 100 delegates or all 40 senators could vote on it.
In subcommittee and committee meetings — where Republicans outnumber Democrats — the bills were killed, in some cases without being given a hearing.
Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, hopes that won’t be the case during a special session he’s called to address what he says are “common-sense public safety laws” in the wake of the May 31 shooting in Virginia Beach, where a city employee killed 12 people before dying during a gunfire exchange with police.
“It is wrong, it is outrageous, it is unforgivable to turn our municipal centers, our schools, our churches and synagogues and mosques, into battlefields,” Northam said during a press conference last week.
If other states’ experience is a guide, reaching an agreement on how to respond to the mass shooting won’t be an easy task.
In the wake of recent mass shootings, the focus often turns to state legislatures.
Last year, 26 states and Washington, D.C. passed 67 new gun safety laws, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
After the Parkland, Fla., shooting in February 2018, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature enacted several measures now on Northam’s wish list, including an extreme risk protection order, a higher minimum age for buying firearms, and a three-day waiting period for people to receive their guns after buying them.
Florida lawmakers also banned bump stocks and created rules for the safe storage of guns when there are children present.
Colorado’s governor signed a similar extreme protection order — also known as a “red flag” bill — into law in April.
Eileen McCarron, president of gun violence prevention group Colorado Ceasefire, said citizens wanted a special session on gun safety after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, but legislators rebuffed the idea.
But the state passed several laws after the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012, including universal background checks, a high-capacity magazine ban and a requirement that people under domestic protection orders turn their guns in.
Many of those laws have faced challenges in the courts.
McCarron said universal background checks have helped keep guns out of the hands of “bad people” in Colorado, but she can’t say for certain that the other laws have changed anything.
“I would’ve loved to have seen — after we passed the laws in 2013 — that gun violence went down, but it hasn’t,” she said.
In Connecticut — home of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting — a bump stock ban went into effect in October.
Earlier this month, Connecticut legislators also voted to require the proper storage of guns around children. They also banned 3D printed guns that anyone can assemble and made it illegal to store firearms in unattended vehicles.
Jeremy Stein, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said other gun-control bills passed in the Democratic-controlled legislature in 2013, including a ban on “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines, have led to less gun violence.
“There is a correlation between those states that have the strongest gun laws and those states that have the lowest gun deaths,” he said.
Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said gun deaths in the state are trending downward, but not necessarily because of stricter gun laws. He said there has been a “crushing swell” of interest in gun ownership since the Sandy Hook shooting.
“People are afraid that the gun control that has passed and concerns about future gun control would make it next to impossible for people to purchase a firearm,” he said.
In February, the Nevada legislature voted to require background checks for most private gun sales. The vote came a year and a half after the mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert.
After the shooting at a high school in Santa Fe last year, the Texas legislature focused its latest session on a package of school safety laws similar to those passed in Virginia this year.
Ed Scruggs, the board vice chair for gun-control advocacy group Texas Gun Sense, said state lawmakers briefly considered holding a special session after the shooting but decided against it.
Texas also made it possible this year for districts to have as many school marshals — appointed teachers and staff members that can carry guns on campuses — as they want.
Scruggs said a budget line item to create a statewide safe gun storage education and public awareness program is awaiting the governor’s signature.
And six months after a shooter opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Mayor William Peduto signed a package of bills in April that bans assault weapons and modified guns and implements extreme risk protection orders.
Residents — supported by the NRA — have sued the city in response to its ban on high-capacity magazines.
In October, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, signed a bill that forces people convicted of domestic abuse to turn their guns in to law enforcement. He said in a press release it was the first state law in 14 years that addressed gun violence.
In Virginia, Northam has proposed at least seven measures that have been defeated annually in the General Assembly, including universal background checks, requiring lost or stolen guns to be reported, banning bump stocks and suppressors, and allowing localities to regulate guns in government buildings.
Republicans, the Virginia Citizens Defense League and the NRA argue none of those measures would’ve stopped the mass shooting in Virginia Beach.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the gunman purchased the two .45-caliber pistols used in the shooting legally and two years apart. The supressor, or silencer, he used was also purchased legally. State code already bans carrying some suppressors in public areas in Virginia Beach.
Northam can only convene legislators through his executive power. He can’t set the agenda or force them to vote. That’s up to the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
“While the Governor can call a special session, he cannot specify what the General Assembly chooses to consider or how we do our work,” Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, pointed out in a statement.
Republicans said they’re going to bring their own agenda to the special session, which they’ll use to crack down on criminals. They’re likely to propose bills that require mandatory minimum sentences for gun-related crimes. Northam has said mandatory minimums unfairly target people of color, and he has promised not to sign any new ones into law for the rest of his term.
Because Republicans are in the majority — albeit a slim one — they’re likely to be able to block the Democrats’ bills.
But Virginia Democrats may not have to wait much longer for change.
All 140 seats are contested this November, and after closing the party gap in 2017 by flipping 15 seats, Democrats got another advantage earlier this year when a court picked a new district map that made several key Republican seats more vulnerable.
Democrats like Cheryl Turpin, who’s running for state Senate in Virginia Beach after one term as delegate, have been touting their endorsements from gun-control organizations like Moms Demand Action.
Meanwhile, Republicans like Virginia Beach School Board member Carolyn Weems, who’s also running for state Senate, have promoted their “A” ratings from the NRA.
Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist with Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy, said the special session is a strategic move by Democrats to force Republicans’ hands ahead of an election.
Gun control bills have died easily during the regular session when there’s not a lot of attention on the issue, especially this year, when the focus turned to abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and the scandals involving Northam and other top elected Democrats.
But all eyes will be on the General Assembly — and the issue of gun control — this July during the special session.
“It’s going to happen in massive limelight,” Bitecofer said.
In past special sessions called to address issues like the budget and redistricting, bills have been referred to committees just like in the regular session.
Most of the gun control bills proposed by Democrats are likely to go to the House’s Militia, Police and Public Safety committee and the Senate’s Courts of Justice committee. Republicans’ mandatory minimum sentencing bills will head to each chamber’s Courts of Justice committee.
Bitecofer said the special session will be a test for Hampton Roads Republicans in newly vulnerable House districts, including a few that represent Virginia Beach. The 76th, 81st, 83rd and 94th districts, for example, all scoop up more Democratic votes, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
“It’s very hard for Republicans to triangulate on this issue because they face the other Republicans in the caucus who do not have the electoral issue that the marginal members have,” she said. “All the safe members have no interest in compromising.”