Monday’s Gun Lobby Day at the General Assembly passed without incident, which means two things.
One: Virginians will continue to debate guns with the same passion they did before.
Two: They can now debate whether Gov. Ralph Northam’s declaration of a state of emergency — which banned guns on the grounds of the state Capitol for the duration of the event — was (a) a necessary precaution or (b) a hysterical over-reaction.
Here’s the thing: Being “safe, not sorry” is rarely a bad thing. Virginia now lives in the shadow of the deadly Charlottesville march of 2017, and has to act accordingly. Ignoring that precedent seems too big a risk, especially given the online chatter by various extremist groups leading up to Monday’s event. Indeed, the FBI’s arrest of three suspected white supremacists who authorities say had discussed opening fire at the event only underscored the wisdom of the governor’s action.
They won’t, of course, but all those who attended Monday’s event ought to thank Northam. If the extraordinary security measures enacted in Richmond had the effect of scaring away the hate groups who wanted to latch onto the event for their own vile purposes, that helped all those who were there to peacefully make their case that the gun bills before the legislature are wrong-headed. Thought experiment: If something had gone wrong, whose cause would that have hurt? Not those pushing for stricter gun laws. That’s why the Republican criticism of Northam’s declaration never made sense to us. We understand the partisan instinct to criticize the governor, but in practical terms, the gun rights side had the most to lose. That the event happened peacefully makes them look good (with some exceptions) but also makes the governor look good. Politics can sometimes be strange that way.
So what are those exceptions? All those who insisted on showing up armed, especially those toting around long guns. Just because they had the right to do so doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Likewise, the people waving certain signs — some of which were so vulgar we can’t publish them in a family newspaper — and the people who erected a fake guillotine.
Were those people there to protest or persuade? If the former, then maybe it doesn’t matter how the participants come across to the general public. Perhaps those in the gun rights movement are thrilled to see people carrying guns around — and, for all we know, maybe they’re also excited to see provocative signs and execution equipment. But if the purpose of Monday’s event was legitimately to lobby the General Assembly, then all those guns, and those poor-taste signs, and that guillotine, were completely counter-productive.
The political reality: The legislature is now controlled by Democrats who are inclined to pass the gun bills that the gun rights lobbyists despise. Waving around guns in public as if this were some kind of cosplay convention for gun fetishists is not going to persuade any wavering Democrats (if there are any) that those bills are a bad idea. Nor is that going to win over any swing voters. Keep in mind that the whole reason the General Assembly is poised to pass stricter gun laws is because the gun rights side lost the last legislative elections. Short-term, the gun rights supporters would like to stop those bills, but long-term they need to win back control of the General Assembly. The electoral difficulty: Polls show Virginians like the bills the legislature is about to pass. The Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University found in December that 86% of those surveyed are in favor of universal background checks, 73% back “red flag” laws that would allow courts to take guns away from someone deemed a threat and 54% agree that assault-style weapons should be banned. Parading around in camo with long guns slung over their shoulders is the worst possible thing that gun rights advocates could be doing. Ditto those unmentionable signs and the guillotine. None of those things will sway swing voters to their side. On the contrary, they will only harden negative stereotypes. The gun rights advocates need better public relations advice than what they’re getting, because all those things we saw Monday only help the other side.
They’re not the only ones who need better public relations advice, though. Let’s back up to the start of this year’s General Assembly and the decision by Democrats to ban guns in the state Capitol. This was entirely predictable. The Democrats, though, shuffled the decision off to a rules committee and then seemed to hide behind Capitol Police in making the decision. That’s weak. The entire legislature should have voted on those rules. Given the Democratic majorities in each chamber, the ban would have passed. The way it played out felt more like legislative sleight-of-hand — and a surprise pulled on the minority party. If you’re going to make a decision —especially a controversial one — own it.
Likewise, as much as we think Northam was right in taking seriously the prospect for hate groups infiltrating Monday’s event, he did err in one respect: He should have briefed legislative leaders before making his announcement. Republican leaders had to ask for a security briefing and we notice that after they got one, their tone changed. On Saturday, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County issued a strongly worded statement: “Any group that comes to Richmond to spread white supremacist garbage, or any other form of hate, violence, or civil unrest isn’t welcome here … So there’s no mistake, this is my message to any group that would subvert this event: you are not welcome here. While we and our Democratic colleagues may have differences, we are all Virginians and we will stand united in opposition to any threats of violence or civil unrest from any quarter.”
So now what? The General Assembly will now proceed to pass — and the governor will sign — the gun bills that Monday’s crowd was there to protest. So did anything really change? Probably not. In a way, that’s good — we’re not here today talking about Charlottesville 2.0. But gun rights advocates — many of whom are from rural areas — still need to figure out a more constructive way to speak to a legislature now run by suburban and urban Democrats. And those Democrats need to figure out how to deal with such a vocal and disaffected minority, especially when much of it is so geographically concentrated in rural Virginia, a part of the state that already feels disenfranchised. Is either likely to happen?