By Brad Brooks
(Reuters) - Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's push for new gun control laws after the May massacre of 12 people in Virginia Beach flopped when the Republican-controlled state legislature acquiesced to his call for a July special session but left without a vote.
But Northam saw new hope on Wednesday for his gun measures after voters flipped control of both chambers of the statehouse to his fellow Democrats for the first time in a quarter century.
"They want us to finally pass commonsense gun safety legislation, so no one has to fear being hurt or killed while at school, at work, or at their place of worship," Northam said hours after the election results. "I look forward to working with our new Democratic majority to make these priorities a reality."
The legislature will take on several proposals, including banning assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines and raising the minimum age to 21 from 18 to buy a rifle or shotgun, said Dick Saslaw, the top Democrat in the state Senate.
The United States has seen a steady stream of mass shootings in recent years, including the massacre of 58 people at a Las Vegas country music concert in 2017, and a pair of back-to-back shootings this past summer in Texas and Ohio that left 22 dead.
While congressional Democrats have called for new gun laws since those attacks, and President Donald Trump at times has voiced openness to the idea, Republicans have blocked them, arguing that restrictions on firearms violated the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
That has left the issue to state legislatures and prompted gun-control advocates to shift their focus to making state-level changes. Everytown for Gun Safety, started by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, contributed more than $2.5 million to Virginia Democratic campaigns, the group said on Wednesday.
'THIS IS INSANE'
Following the May mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building by a city engineer armed with two .45-caliber handguns, Northam asked state lawmakers to hold a special session to discuss gun control. The Republican-controlled legislature heeded his order but met for just 90 minutes, and left without voting on any proposals.
Robyn Sordelett, a gun-owning volunteer with the Virginia chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told Reuters the first thing the group would push for would be background checks and strong "red-flag" laws, which would allow courts and local law enforcement to remove guns from people deemed a risk to communities.
"Those two pieces of legislation will absolutely save lives. We've seen it in other states and we know it can work here," she said by phone.
Sordelett said she believed the gun issue had reached the point where it bridges the urban-rural divide and that headway could be made in other states in 2020, when voters will elect state lawmakers across most of the country as well as voting for president and congressional representatives.
"After every mass shooting, I wake up to texts from rural neighbors saying: 'This is insane, what are we going to do?'" Sordelett said.
The National Rifle Association, which strongly opposes gun control laws, confirmed it had been vastly outspent by Bloomberg's group and said in a statement that "Virginians are about to experience life under a distant tycoon's thumb."
"Candidates who proudly accepted Bloomberg's cash - and every voter they misled - will soon realize the cost of being beholden to a Manhattan billionaire who despises Virginians' right to self-defense," the NRA said in an emailed statement. "As the battle continues, so does the NRA's defense of the Second Amendment rights of all Americans."
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)