Virginia’s ‘amazing moment’: The view from ground zero of U.S. gun debate

Julio Cortez/AP
Demonstrators stand outside a security zone before a pro-gun rally, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia.

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How would you react to a plainclothes resident strolling down the street with an AR-15 tossed over his shoulder?

If you are like Laura Kinzinger of Cape Charles, Virginia, you might call the police and then duck, run, and hide. “It might be legal,” she says. “But it’s not normal.”

Why We Wrote This

A seismic shift underway in Virginia has lawmakers asking a question once unthinkable for the home of the NRA: How do you ban “America’s gun”?

But if you are like the 22,000 people who gathered in Richmond, Virginia, late last month, openly carrying an assault-style rifle is a form of protest and a reminder of Second Amendment rights. “The pictures that are taken from here ... can live forever and encourage people to remember our rights,” says Jeff Hulbert, a gun-rights advocate from Maryland who attended the rally.

Virginia, a historically gun-friendly Southern state, has become a front line in the battle over gun rights in the United States, as newly elected Democrats move forward with a ban on new sales of assault-style rifles.

“It is an amazing moment,” says Adam Winkler, author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” “A lot of people since [the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre] have expressed disappointment that nothing has changed, but we have actually seen a real shift in American gun politics. Virginia is really the crucible of that.”

As chants of “USA! USA!” poured over him, Jeff Hulbert stood at the ready – a soldier, in his eyes, of democracy. Behind him rose the peak of the Virginia Capitol in the state that has become ground zero in the shifting politics of gun rights across the United States.

On a fence fluttered a “We Will Not Comply” banner. Strapped around his shoulder, an Israeli Tavor rifle, which fires the same ammunition as an AR-15 – a military-style weapon that has become popular as an avatar of armed citizenship on the right and decried as a machine of mass death on the left.

“We think it’s very symbolic to wear our sidearms, to wear a rifle, because the pictures that are taken from here ... can live forever and encourage people to remember our rights,” says Mr. Hulbert, a Maryland resident and founder of Patriot Picket, a gun-rights advocacy group.

Why We Wrote This

A seismic shift underway in Virginia has lawmakers asking a question once unthinkable for the home of the NRA: How do you ban “America’s gun”?

But Cape Charles resident Laura Kinzinger has an opposite reaction. If she saw someone openly carrying a long rifle, she says she’d call the police and then duck, run, and hide.

“It might be legal. But it’s not normal,” she says. “That person might suddenly use it. I mean, there could be accidents. The thought of walking around with an [assault-style] rifle is just horrific. They are designed to kill people. That’s what they do.”

As complaints of government overreach still echo from the 22,000-strong show of largely armed force in Richmond late last month, newly elected Democrats are moving forward with a ban on new sales of the assault-style rifles, including misdemeanor penalties for possession of magazines that hold more than seven rounds.

The turn of a historically gun-friendly Southern state toward gun restrictions comes as the U.S. Supreme Court takes its first gun rights case in a decade to determine how far municipalities can go to restrict guns. Given that a conservative majority is unlikely to OK broad new restraints, battles at the state level have come to define an epic shift for Second Amendment reformers.

“It is an amazing moment,” says Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” “A lot of people since [the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre] have expressed disappointment that nothing has changed, but we have actually seen a real shift in American gun politics. Virginia is really the crucible of that.”

On Monday, the House of Delegates advanced the assault-style ban to its final reading, with Democratic lawmakers contending that it will not infringe on anybody’s Second Amendment rights. Republicans argue otherwise, saying it would criminalize ownership of some magazines, even after Democrats tempered penalties to a misdemeanor. At one point, police escorted protesters out of the chamber. “Whose side are you on?” they shouted at officers.

But the political fight between blue suburbs and red rural areas over the proposed ban has also bared tensions among gun owners themselves. Does open carry, as Mr. Hulbert hopes, normalize the image of an armed citizenry? Or does it further entrench the idea that the right to carry a long rifle infringes on the freedoms of non-gun owners?

Williamsburg, Virginia, resident Josiah Gray says open carry should be restricted to police officers. The parking officer says carrying a gun might make some people feel safer, but others could be intimidated or possibly traumatized, especially if they lost someone they knew to gun violence.

“You never know how it affects other people,” he says. “If you don’t have a uniform, it looks kind of off to the other people that you have a gun.”

Some gun owners share those doubts. Few gun owners question the right, but many ask about the “pragmatic aspect of open carry,” says Wake Forest University sociologist David Yamane, founder of the Gun Culture 2.0 blog. “There are many people in the gun community who really dislike open carry as a method of normalizing firearms.”

In essence, an open source platform that has sold more than 8 million exemplars on its journey to become “America’s Gun,” the Armalite Rifle, gun owners say, is basically a slick-looking single-fire rifle. Mechanically and caliber-wise, that is correct. But it is also a masterpiece of war. Its military cousin was a replacement for the unreliable M-14; its ability to kill Viet Cong in tight quarters stunned Army researchers.

The AR was first introduced to the civilian population as a hunting rifle, and its advertising slogan belies its appeal: If it is good enough for the military, it is good enough for all of us. The sunsetting of the federal assault weapons ban in 2004 opened an era of gun rights expansion, where three-quarters of states have now loosened regulations on concealed and open carry, and have expanded the rights of lethal self defense.

But that arc has been complicated by the gun’s use in a growing number of mass killings, as well as the rise of violent far-right nationalism, members of which law enforcement said posed credible threats as they sought to infiltrate the Richmond rally.

As a result, some of the states that led the expansion of gun rights – like Florida – are tapping the brakes. Gun control advocates like Everytown for Gun Safety, which is backed by Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg, are building on success in turning Virginia blue by spending $60 million this election cycle to elect reformers in states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Arizona.

“Democrats in Virginia aren’t doing anything different than what they promised to do, what they ran on,” says Ernest McGowen, a political scientist at the University of Richmond.

Stephanie Keith/Reuters
A large crowd gathers on Gun Lobby Day in front of the Virginia Capitol in Richmond, Jan. 20, 2020.

At the same time, he adds, open carry of AR-15s in protest “is also a statement to the strength of our democracy: [Gun owners] were there about politics, about policies, about working out, how do we reasonably deal with this thing with guns in our country?”

Gallup says 6 in 10 Americans support an assault-style weapons ban. Those poll numbers and the renewed passion of gun-control advocates after the Parkland massacre in Florida, some gun owners say, has hastened a push to normalize the weapons – and their use in place of protest placards.

“I think they wanted to show that carrying weapons, whether it’s open or concealed, is a normal thing that millions of Americans do every day,” says Tom Ferguson, a University of Virginia senior who came to Richmond in January to lobby on behalf of gun rights. “We have just normal people coming in who just care about making their voices heard.”

The symbolism of the AR-15 is apparent to both sides, and it’s unclear whether a ban would reduce gun deaths. Rifle deaths make up about 300 out of 30,000 gun deaths in the U.S. a year, making the toll from handguns far more dramatic.

As Democrats mull gun-control legislation, nearly 100 Virginia counties have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, where local sheriffs vowed to not enforce laws that, in their estimation, don’t meet constitutional muster. (So far, U.S. courts have allowed assault-style weapon bans.)

“The right has understood that the battle of ideas is terribly important, because people want to feel that they are part of a crusade that is inspired by a philosophically sophisticated ... and morally significant agenda or purpose,” says Colin Bird, a political philosopher at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

While the largest share of gun owners are older white men over the age of 40, women and minorities are part of an increasingly diverse gun culture. For Anna-Marie Lewis, who owns a shooting range in Bergen, New York, carrying a gun is both practical and empowering.

At the rally, she is wearing a helmet and carrying a small AR-15 style rifle. “No one walks around like this at all, ever, but we do just to show we can,” says Ms. Lewis. “This is very peaceful. We have no intent of ever using these in this scenario, but it’s just to show that we should be able to ... that it’s our right.”

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