RICHMOND, Va. -- A top Virginia Republican is calling for a broad ban on guns in government buildings, surprise legislation he filed the day before state lawmakers are set to debate gun laws.
Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment filed a bill Monday that would extend a state prohibition on guns in courthouses to any "building owned or used by a locality for governmental purposes." It would also increase the penalty for breaking the law from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered lawmakers to return to the Capitol on Tuesday and called on them to pass a wide range of gun-control measures. The governor, a Democrat, called for "votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers" after a Virginia Beach city employee shot and killed 12 people at a municipal building on May 31. One of Northam's proposals would strengthen local governments' ability to enact gun laws that are stricter than what state laws allow and ban guns in municipal buildings.
Norment's bill was unexpected, as Republicans have historically blocked gun-control measures and previously said Northam's proposals have little chance of passing.
Norment, in a statement, declined to say what prompted him to file his legislation.
"The governor had nothing to do with this bill," Norment said.
He added that his legislation "would not achieve the governor's stated objectives regarding the authority of local governments" but he did not elaborate.
Norment's proposal was embraced by gun-control advocates and panned by gun-rights supporters.
"Like every other gun control scheme proposed for this special session, this measure would not have prevented the tragedy at Virginia Beach," National Rifle Association spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said. "Instead of seeking to disarm law-abiding Virginians, lawmakers in Richmond ought to focus on real solutions to crime, including reforms to our broken mental health care system and enforcing laws already on the books."
Lori Haas is a gun-control advocate and the mother of a student who was shot and survived the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. She said city and county councilmembers around the state "want to conduct local business without an armed person standing at the podium threatening them." She praised Norment's legislation.
"It is very much a step in the right direction," Haas said.
Despite his role as the Senate's top Republican, it's unclear if Norment's measure has much chance of success. Republican Del. Glenn Davis, who represents Virginia Beach, filed a similar measure Monday — indicating at least some level of GOP support.
But Republicans have been mostly unified in opposing Northam's gun-control agenda, and House Republican leaders have made it clear that gun-control measures have little chance of passing their chamber.
Republicans currently have a narrow majority in both the House and Senate. The special session in playing out in the middle of a heated election year, where partisan control of the General Assembly is up for grabs.