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Richmond, Virginia, has long been central to historic American struggles. On Monday it may be the center of another bitter U.S. dispute, this time over Second Amendment gun rights.
Pro-gun groups plan a big rally at the state capitol, with upwards of 20,000 people, in opposition to a package of gun control bills now speeding through the Virginia legislature. Worried that extremist groups may be planning violence around the event, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has temporarily banned weapons from the capitol grounds.
A sudden change in partisan control in Virginia is powering the rally’s attendance. For the first time in decades Democrats control the statehouse and the legislature. More liberal voters in the Washington suburbs are now the fulcrum of state politics.
Gun owners are worried that traditional Virginia rural culture, with its heritage of hunting and guns, may be in danger. They see Virginia as a harbinger for what could happen in other states, such as Texas and Georgia, where growing urban areas may soon tip power toward gun control advocates.
“We’re kind of at a crossroads. We need to decide as a nation who we want to be,” says Courtney Sodan, who manages her husband’s gunsmithing shop in James City County.
The old Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, is full of monuments to rebels, heroes, traitors, and tyrants. They reflect the city and state’s central role in American history, and American conflict, from the era of the Revolution to today.
On Monday Richmond may once again be the focal point of a uniquely U.S. struggle – this time over the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. A gun rights rally is expected to draw thousands of activists from across the country, many carrying weapons. They intend to protest efforts to enact sweeping new gun control measures in a state where Democrats now control the governorship and both chambers of the legislature for the first time in a generation.
The fight is cultural as well as political. Virginia’s historic rural pro-gun attitudes are being challenged by the growing power of more liberal suburban voters around Washington, D.C. Virginia gun owners worry that their traditional archetype of what it means to be an American citizen is at stake.
“The rest of the country is looking at Virginia,” says state Sen. Amanda Chase, a gun-carrying Republican from Amelia County. “This is not Republican versus Democrat. Gun rights is an American value.”
But to many other Virginians, the idea of a mass armed rally at the state capitol on a holiday devoted to civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. is its own form of tyranny – part of a growing “insurrectionist idea” in the U.S. That is where “pro-gun groups are now saying, ‘Hey, democracy doesn’t apply. Elections don’t apply. We’re going to do armed intimidation on a day that’s supposed to be a peaceful day of lobbying,’” says Andrew Patrick, political communications director at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington, D.C.
Threats of violence
For Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and state law enforcement officials, the immediate concern is the threat of possible violence at the rally. On Thursday a circuit court judge upheld Governor Northam’s temporary ban on weapons on the grounds of the capitol. Mr. Northam argued that the ban is necessary because of “credible intelligence” that extremist militias and white supremacist groups are planning attacks around the rally.
Law enforcement officials are taking seriously social media posts threatening hangings and a “boogaloo,” slang for a new U.S. civil war. In part that is because investigations found that poor policing led to some of the violence at a 2017 white supremacy rally in Charlottesville.
The size of Monday’s planned rally is part of the problem, say anti-gun activists. Protesters at past gun rights demonstrations in Richmond have openly carried weapons and even brought them into the General Assembly building.
“Now they want to ramp it up to 20,000 people with threats abounding. That changes the scenario,” says Mr. Patrick.
But the vast majority of participants in the day of planned gun rights protests and legislative lobbying hope that it all stays peaceful, for a wide variety of reasons, says Harry Wilson, a gun owner and author of “The Triumph of the Gun-Rights Argument.”
“They’re going to say, ‘We’re here to let our voices be heard and not engage or argue with people on the other side. Any of that stuff is going to reflect badly on us. Show up but be respectful – and tone it down,’” Mr. Wilson says.
Virginia’s fast-changing political picture
A rapid shift in partisan political power is behind the sudden change in size and tone of the Richmond gun rights rally.
Up until three years ago, Republicans held a near supermajority in the Virginia House of Delegates, but GOP losses in successive state elections have given Democrats once-in-a-generation power.
That election swing is in large part a product of demographic changes, with more highly educated, high-income voters flooding into Vienna, Falls Church, Leesburg, and other suburbs of Washington, D.C.
But gun rights were a big issue. Governor Northam’s response to the mass shooting in Virginia Beach last year helped lift him from the quagmire of his blackface scandal in February, when a racist photo was found on his medical school yearbook page. To consider some of the same bills now being debated, the governor convened a special summer session of the General Assembly, which Republicans abruptly ended – frustrating many citizens and opposition lawmakers.
“Virginia has been trending Democratic for some time, but what has happened all of a sudden was the 2019 election when Democrats got control and suddenly had the ability to push all these bills through that Republicans had been blocking for a couple of decades,” says Mr. Wilson.
State Democrats are pushing a slew of gun control measures. Bills to expand background checks and enact a “red flag” law, allowing police to take guns from people deemed dangerous, have passed legislative committees. Other bills being considered could limit gun purchases to one per month, restrict the size of gun magazines legal in Virginia, and perhaps ban assault rifles.
Meanwhile, 91 of 95 Virginia counties have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” meaning they would resist enforcement of any gun measure deemed to violate the state or U.S. Constitution, according to the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a group pushing for sanctuary establishment.
“We’re almost back in 1773”
The Virginia rally comes at a time when the struggle over gun control and gun access measures has in part migrated from the national level to the states.
Presidential candidate and New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg, for example, has spent millions in Virginia to lobby for gun control, citing the state as a prime source for an “iron pipeline” of illegal arms from red states in the South and Midwest to more gun-wary blue ones in the North.
Meanwhile, gun rights activists are less worried about Washington under President Donald Trump than they were under President Barack Obama. Some of their focus has shifted to fighting change in formerly red states now trending purple, or even blue.
“The reason people are coming in from everywhere in the country [to the rally] is that they sense that what happens in Virginia is going to set a tone for what can happen in other states that may be making the same sort of movement from right back to more left,” says David Yamane, founder of the blog Gun Culture 2.0, and a sociologist at Wake Forest University.
As the rally approaches, some Virginia gun owners say they’re worried that a state where gun ownership and state policy has long been in sync, where the National Rifle Association is headquartered, may become a bellwether of spreading Second Amendment restrictions.
Courtney Sodan, for instance, manages her husband’s gunsmithing shop in James City County.
Virginia, she says, is the mother of presidents and the first true soil called American. In her mind, where the state goes the nation follows. Friends across the country have told her they’re watching, she says.
“I feel like we’re almost back in 1773, having debates in the taverns,” she says. “We’re kind of at a crossroads. We need to decide as a nation who we want to be.”