The streets near the State Capitol were already packed with thousands of gun-toting protestors by 7:00 a.m. on Monday, and tens of thousands more showed up as the day progressed.
At first glance, the scene appeared tense. State Police set up strategic roadblocks throughout the downtown and partitioned off the Capitol grounds with a chain-link fence. The only way in was through a police checkpoint outfitted with body scanners and metal detectors. Every hundred feet or so, posted portions of an executive order from Gov. Ralph Northam (D) banned any sort of firearm, weapon, or body armor within the fenced enclosure. Snipers peeked out from the roofs of the State Capitol and the surrounding buildings, ready to act in case of a scuffle.
But it soon became clear that this security was overzealous. Rather than riot in the streets, most of the protesters stood around, drank coffee, and smoked their early-morning cigarettes. Some unfurled the flags they brought in backpacks. The most common flags were these: American, Virginian, Gadsden. Others pulled out pocket Constitutions and began reciting the Second Amendment. Still others pledged allegiance to the American flag and President Donald Trump. The whole thing had the feel of a Tea Party rally.
Perhaps that’s why this event, a yearly function organized by the Virginia Civil Defense League (VCDL) as a part of Virginia’s Lobby Day, attracted so much media attention in the days preceding it. Just like the Tea Party’s devotion to limited government in 2009, the Second Amendment movement’s reverence for guns and gun culture is hard for the uninitiated to understand — and easy for its enemies to willfully misrepresent.
Consider how MSNBC’s Craig Melvin characterized the event as his network’s cameras trained in on the Virginia State Capitol before the march began.
“This is the scene in Richmond,” he said. “They put white nationalists, militia groups, and supporters of background checks for gun purchases all in one place. A lot of folks — and justifiably so — are worrying about a repeat of Charlottesville in 2017.”
Apprehension of this sort seems understandable, at least from afar. Days before the event, several neo-Nazis who had planned to attend were arrested with weapons. Shortly before the arrests, Northam declared a state of emergency and issued his temporary ban on weapons at the Capitol. And when VCDL and Gun Owners of America sued to overturn the ban, Northam accused them of inciting violence.
“They’re not coming to peacefully protest,” he said at a press conference. “They are coming to intimidate and cause harm.”
That’s a much more exciting narrative than peaceful lobbying, and many in the press ran with it. Nearly every major news outlet published a story in advance of the rally speculating on all the ways it could go wrong. A day before the rally, the New York Times ran a profile of the different groups possibly involved with the event, and outlined the ways in which each one was problematic, racist, or both. And that evening, NBC’s Ben Collins tweeted a warning to his fellow journalists in which he labeled the lobbying event a “white nationalist rally.”
But anyone following Virginia’s Second Amendment movement with a clear eye could have predicted that today’s event, which may well have attracted over 100,000 people, would result in zero violence and no arrests.
Below, I’ve outlined three points which could have helped media outlets better predict the outcome of Monday’s rally.
In Virginia, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is also Lobby Day, which VCDL has been participating in since 2003. With the exception of the afternoon rally, today was no different. Starting at 7:30 a.m., activists streamed into Virginia legislative offices to speak with their delegates and senators about a raft of bills that, among other things, would restrict the right to bear arms in public spaces, increase background checks, and redefine the definition of “assault firearm.”
Some representatives, albeit only Republicans, came out of their offices and into the streets to mingle with some of the protesters, as well. These events are normal. The National Rifle Association organized a similar lobbying effort last Monday, with equally peaceful results.
Causing a ruckus in the streets would be counterproductive. The group went to great lengths to ensure peaceful interactions during the lobbying portion of the day. When I arrived around 7:00, volunteers were passing out flyers requesting that participants act as law-abiding citizens.
“It is our hope all in attendance will be able to peacefully assemble and express their views as guaranteed by the first amendment,” the flyers said. “Those choosing to do so with legal firearms and in areas not prohibited by any ordinance, statute, or declaration may also do so as guaranteed by the Second Amendment. To ensure everyone’s safety and security we remind you of the laws that will be strictly enforced. Report any suspicious activity to the nearest police officer and do not interfere so that this day may remain safe for all.”
Hard to imagine white nationalists talking like that — or picking up their own trash at the end of the event.
Bloodbaths like the one in Charlottesville don’t often occur when the State Capitol is piled up with police cars. If there’s anything we’ve learned since 2017, it’s that white nationalists are cowards who don’t dare get violent if they anticipate a big police presence. As soon as the courts upheld Northam’s state of emergency declaration, it should have become clear that there would be no violent conflict.
Of course, gun owners are still the losers here. Although they sent a message to Northam, his declaration prevented them from exercising their rights at the State Capitol. And although they proved that thousands of people can gather in a public space and not shoot each other, the preemptive media smear — largely retracted by now — will leave a mark. And, most importantly, no matter how many people rally in front of the State Capitol, Virginia Democrats are not going to back off on passing gun control.
Democrats have the votes. Republicans don’t.