As Democrats Prepare To Take Power In Virginia, Gov. Northam Focuses On Gun Control

Nov 8, 2019
Originally published on November 9, 2019 1:15 am

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam vows it's "a new day and a new landscape" in Virginia. He says when Democrats take over the state legislature for the first time in a generation at the start of the new year, passing gun violence prevention laws will be a top priority.

He adds guns "shouldn't be a partisan issue," even though he says he's prepared to pass new "common sense" gun laws without Republican support.

"We had a tremendous tragedy in Virginia Beach over Memorial Day weekend. We lost 12 precious lives," Northam told NPR's All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly on Friday, alluding to a mass shooting that took place at a municipal building earlier this year.

"So I think Virginia spoke loudly on Tuesday and said enough is enough," Northam said.

The interview comes just days after Democrats seized control of both chambers of Virginia's General Assembly. The change of power in the state house, coupled with Northam residing in the Governor's mansion, means it's the first time Democrats will have total control of the legislative agenda since 1993.

"Dealing with the gun violence in Virginia will be a top priority of our administration," Northam said. "Now certainly with a Democratic Senate and House, I believe we can move forward with common sense gun legislation."

Passing new gun laws in Virginia, which has a rich gun culture and is home to the National Rifle Association, has been elusive.

Following the mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Northam unveiled a series of gun control measures, including universal background checks, a ban on assault-style weapons and outlawing sound suppressors like the one the Virginia Beach shooter used.

But during a special session Northam called in July, the GOP-controlled General Assembly met for less than two hours and adjourned without considering a single piece of legislation.

Kelly pressed Northam on whether he has the votes to get gun laws passed without Republican support. He said he does, but he's hoping to get some GOP legislators on board.

"I think they listen to voters. I know they do. And seeing how this election went on Tuesday, I hope they'll be at the table," Northam said.

"They should be. This shouldn't be a partisan issue."

On the issue of banning assault weapons, Kelly asked Northam what he will do about the ones Virginians already possess. "Will you confiscate them?" Kelly asks.

"No ma'am, not at this stage," Northam said, "We're looking at banning the sales of assault weapons ... that would be what we would start with."

Northam, a former Army physician, said the eight bills he introduced in June are a starting point, adding "I'm sure there will be others introduced."

He added: "I have been to enough funerals. I've been to enough vigils. I have heard enough well-intended people say that our thoughts and prayers are with these families," Northam said.

"But now it's time for legislators, for our leaders, to come to Richmond and take votes and pass laws."

Governor Ralph Northam addresses the media Saturday, February 2, 2019 at the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Va.
The Washington Post / The Washington Post via Getty Im

Northam's burgeoning influence in the state seemed unthinkable nine months ago.

He appeared on the verge of resigning his post after a photo on his 1984 yearbook page from Eastern Virginia Medical School surfaced, depicting a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan regalia. After initially admitting he was one of the two men in the photo, he quickly backtracked, saying he had no recollection of appearing in the picture.

He later admitted to wearing shoe polish on his face when dressing as Michael Jackson to compete in a dance contest in the 1980s.

He resisted calls, even by some within his own party, to resign.

A few days after the photo surfaced, Virginia's other statewide-elected Democrats, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring were swept up in a cascade of scandals of their own.

Fairfax was accused of sexual assault by two women. Herring also admitted he had worn blackface decades earlier.

The saga threatened to topple all three men and cede control of the Governor's mansion to the Republican House Speaker.

But all three Democrats weathered the storm, defied calls to step aside, and are now poised to oversee the most dramatic change in state gun laws in recent memory.

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When Virginia Democrats swept control of the State House this week, one factor some voters cited was gun control. In May, a mass shooting in Virginia Beach killed 12 people. Afterwards, Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, convened a special session of the state Legislature.


He had hoped to pass gun control measures - what he called commonsense legislation. But Republicans were in control. They shelved the bills and ended the special session after just 90 minutes. Fast-forward to this week.


RALPH NORTHAM: I have one question for you. Do you all like the color blue?


NORTHAM: I said, do you like the color blue? Because I'm here to officially declare today, November the 5, 2019, that Virginia is officially blue. Congratulations.


CHANG: Democrats will take control of the Legislature in January.

KELLY: Governor Northam joins me now from the governor's office in Richmond. Governor Northam, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much for having me on.

KELLY: You and I last spoke shortly after that awful day in Virginia Beach of the shooting. You introduced eight measures then. We don't have time to tick through all of them, but they have to do with background checks...


KELLY: ...With red flag laws, with bans. Will you be pushing for that same agenda this time or even more?

NORTHAM: Absolutely.


NORTHAM: I will start with those eight pieces of what I call commonsense gun legislation. They have been proven to save lives, and that's what we want to do in Virginia. So we will start with those pieces of legislation. I'm sure there will be others that will be introduced. I think they will be well-vetted in both the House and the Senate. And you know, depending on what gets to my desk, I'll certainly consider those. And if we feel that they'll make Virginia safer, we'll move forward with them as well.

KELLY: Is your sense that any Republican minds have been changed on this issue? Do you have any hope of buy-in from Republican lawmakers?

NORTHAM: It's an interesting question. And you know, we were inundated with commercials and mailers during the campaign. And so some of the Republicans ran on commonsense gun legislation. So I look forward to seeing their response. I think that they listen to voters. I know they do. And seeing how this election went on Tuesday, I hope that they'll be at the table. They should be. This shouldn't be a partisan issue.

KELLY: May I ask about one specific change you advocated before? And it sounds like it's on your list - an assault weapons ban.


KELLY: What is your plan for assault weapons currently owned by Virginians, that are already out there? Will you confiscate them?

NORTHAM: Well - no, ma'am, not at this stage. What - we're looking at the banning the sales of assault weapons. We'll certainly, you know, again, vet these pieces of legislation. But that would be what we would start with.

KELLY: You would propose a ban on sales going forward?

NORTHAM: Absolutely.

KELLY: OK. In terms of pushback that you received last time, I'm curious about one other thing and whether it has changed. There's been a lot of reporting on the NRA...


KELLY: ...And their leadership challenges and funding challenges. Is your sense that there is as much energy in the pro-gun rights lobby in your state as there was, I don't know, back in May or a year ago?

NORTHAM: You know, certainly, the advocacy is still out there. But, you know, I think that the - you know, for Virginians to experience what happened in our backyard on Memorial Day weekend, you know, I think the influence of the NRA, especially in Virginia, has weakened. And...

KELLY: You do?

NORTHAM: Yes, ma'am. And I think we'll continue to see that.

KELLY: But their pockets are deep and so is their influence, particularly in a Southern state like Virginia. Are you confident that you can overcome the power of that lobby and actually get eight pieces...


KELLY: ...Of legislation through the State House?

NORTHAM: I am because the - you know, the Virginians spoke on Tuesday. And that's the most powerful thing out there, is their vote. And they did that despite the money that the NRA poured into Virginia.

KELLY: And can you get this done if you don't get any Republican buy-in? Are the votes there?

NORTHAM: Yes, ma'am, they are. I don't know of any Democrats that would be opposed to these eight pieces of commonsense legislation that we have proposed in the past and we will do again in January.

KELLY: Last thing - as you speak to voters in Virginia, what do they tell you, what is your sense of to what extent the gun issue was mobilizing people at the polls this week?

NORTHAM: It was a large factor. And you know, I saw that - the tragedy that we had in Virginia and then the Republicans' response when I brought them back to Richmond to just spend less than 90 minutes talking about commonsense gun legislation, that was a large factor. And people have said enough is enough. And you know, we've been talking about these things, but now we have the opportunity to take action, and that's what we intend to do in January.

KELLY: May I point out you still sound kind of bitter about that less than 90 minutes? Are you, hand over heart, determined to reach across the aisle and try to get Republicans on board this time around?

NORTHAM: I will. And I think probably folks know of my history. I served in the United States Army. I took care of wounded soldiers. I'm also a pediatrician. So I've seen what happens when toddlers pick up loaded firearms on the - you know, on the bedside table. So I have heard enough well-intended people say that our thoughts and prayers are with these families, but now it's time for legislators, for our leaders to come to Richmond and take votes and pass laws. And that's what I expect will happen in January.

KELLY: Governor, thank you.

NORTHAM: Thank you so much for having me. It's always good talking to you.

KELLY: And you. That's Ralph Northam. He is the governor of Virginia.

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