Special session on guns could test Virginia Beach delegation

The memorial at Virginia Beach’s Municipal Center includes flowers and cards, like this one,...
The memorial at Virginia Beach’s Municipal Center includes flowers and cards, like this one, signed by employees from the neighboring city of Chesapeake.
Published: Jun. 10, 2019 at 8:29 AM EDT
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VIRGINIA BEACH — The day of the municipal building mass shooting, Republican Del. Barry Knight, who grew up in Virginia Beach and currently represents part of the city, was at a friend’s memorial service when the city manager contacted him to tell him six people had been killed.

By the end of the shooter’s rampage, 13 would be dead, including the gunman, and four more hospitalized.

“I could not believe it,” Knight said. “I was a little bit beyond belief. I sat there and said, ‘What do I do? What do I do?”

He delivered opening remarks at a 4-H show and sale near his farm in the southern part of the city because the city’s director of agriculture was at the Municipal Center, still on lockdown.

He encouraged attendees to pray.

“We’re a very big city but we’re still a small community, we all help each other,” he said.

Knight knew one of the victims, but declined to say which one. He’s visited the memorial residents created at the Municipal Center twice, he said. He and the three other Republican delegates from the city — Chris Stolle, Glenn Davis and Jason Miyares — skipped a House GOP retreat over the weekend. They wanted to stay close to home, Knight said.

“We’ve tried to keep a low profile on this situation because we think now is a time for the victims and the families and friends and all the citizens of Virginia Beach to grieve,” he said.

Virginia Beach is the state’s most populous city and its delegation in Richmond generally prefers to stay out of political fights on controversial topics.

Until now, when the deadliest mass shooting in the country so far this year, combined with Gov. Ralph Northam’s call for a special legislative session next month in its aftermath, thrusts the city into the heated gun control debate. Recent gun reform efforts have been thwarted in legislative committees by Republican majorities.

It will test the area’s moderate Republicans, some of whom are hanging on to their seats in changing districts by a thread, and the whole delegation’s ability to respond to the shaken and grieving community.

It’s hard to know how reactions to mass shootings affect voting behavior, said Quentin Kidd, political science professor at Christopher Newport University. But it’s likely the shooting will have the city’s state representatives considering how it could impact November, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for re-election.

“You may see some posturing during this special session from the Virginia Beach delegation, especially those people who are in competitive races,” Kidd said. “You may see some posturing … from candidates who aren’t in the legislature yet but want to be and they’re thinking ahead to the fall. I think that becomes especially the case if nothing substantive comes out of the session.”

So far though, the Beach’s Republicans haven’t been thinking about politics, Knight said.

“I think it’s entirely too soon right after the tragedy we had down here in Virginia Beach, where I live and lived all my life, for the governor to come in and politicize it to, in my opinion, detract from his other failings that happened in February,” said Knight, referring to Northam’s blackface scandal.

“I don’t typically show but so much passion on things but I’ve got some passion on this because I’m so close to it.”