Monday is gun lobby day in Virginia. Thousands of gun rights advocates — by some wild estimates up to 50,000 or 100,000 — are scheduled to show up in Richmond to make their case against the gun bills under deliberation by legislators. Based on what’s happened in the past, many of those people will be armed.
Some friendly advice: This is a bad idea (and not just because Gov. Ralph Northam has now banned guns on the State Capitol grounds).
Gun rights advocates probably aren’t in a mood to take advice from us, but we’re going to offer some anyway. Virginia Citizens Defense League President Philip Van Cleave posts on the website Ammoland that the event is lobby day, not protest day. “There is a distinct difference between the two.”
Let’s take Van Cleave at his word, that this isn’t a protest rally but an exercise in persuasion. In that case, the gun rights crowd has already made its first mistake. Holding a gun rights event on a holiday honoring a man who was shot to death is in poor taste, to say the least. True, the General Assembly continues in session through Martin Luther King Jr. Day so legislators will be lobbied by lots of causes on that day. Lobbying on the scale that the VCDL is planning, though, is a public relations exercise and scheduling the event for King Day represents a public relations failure. Did no one look at the calendar?
Let’s move on: You need to keep in mind who you’re preparing to lobby. This is not like turning out a crowd to appear before a rural Board of Supervisors to get the county declared a Second Amendment sanctuary — whatever that means (and it probably doesn’t mean anything unless those local officials are someday prepared to break the law). You are showing up before a General Assembly that is now controlled by Democrats — largely Democrats from the urban crescent who have absolutely zero connection to a hunting culture.
That means your cause may already be as lost as all those Confederates who now look down in bronze on Monument Avenue. But if you have any hope of changing a few minds, you need a more sophisticated approach than you’ve shown so far. The point we’re trying to make here — for your benefit, actually — is that you’re appearing before legislators who are largely hostile to your cause. If your goal is simply to protest — to energize your own side for future elections — then it doesn’t really matter how persuasive you are. However, if Van Cleave is right and this is really an attempt to lobby a Democratic General Assembly not to pass any additional gun laws, you’re going about it all wrong. Communication isn’t what is said; it’s what is heard. So you need to think about what Democratic legislators are going to think when they see thousands of gun rights advocates on the street of Richmond — many of them armed. Here’s a hint: They’re not going to be favorably disposed. They’re not going to think “gosh, that’s a lot of people and they sure do feel strongly, perhaps we should rethink some of these bills.” No, they’re going to think “what a bunch of crazy gun nuts; these yahoos are exactly why we need to pass some of these bills. Can we hurry things up?”
You begin at a deficit politically — a party inimical to your interest is in power. That deficit has now deepened, thanks to a lot of the loose talk at all those Second Amendment sanctuary meetings —nullification, interposition, defying state government, not to mention the fever-dream of conspiracy theories that pulse across the internet. All that has only made it more difficult for you to make your case. We refer you to the classic Rule of Holes: If you find yourself in one, stop digging. Unfortunately, gun rights advocates have kept right on excavating. You are in dire need of better public relations advice than you’re getting.
So what should you do on the off-chance that you can find a few Democratic legislators willing to vote against some or all of these bills? We cannot stress this point enough: Crank up some Johnny Cash. Specifically “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town.” The protagonist in the Cash song — “a young cowboy named Billie Joe” — ignored that advice, to his detriment in the final stanza. If you’re serious about your stated aimed, then don’t make the same mistake. Showing up armed at the General Assembly makes a very bad impression on your intended audience. You may not think so, but you’re probably not Democrats. Again, if the goal here really is to lobby the General Assembly, you need to think about how Democrats are going to perceive you. If you show up armed, you’ll look like a bunch of gun fetishists (even if you stay off the capitol grounds). That’s not what you want.
Last summer, at the General Assembly’s special session on guns, people had to walk past a gauntlet of gun rights advocates toting all sorts of fearsome weaponry. This is not how you win hearts and minds. If your real goal is to intimidate legislators — well, that’s not a particularly noble sentiment. It’s unworthy of those taking part in a democratic process. It’s also guaranteed to backfire. We noticed that Van Cleave’s post on Ammoland says that “carrying long guns at Lobby Day is not helpful – it is a distraction. Virginia Citizens Defense League’s important messages inevitably get lost as the press rushes to get pictures of anyone carrying an AR or AK.” He’s definitely right about that. Van Cleave, though, says the crowd will have “enough citizens armed with handguns to take over a modern mid-sized country.” That kind of talk isn’t helpful, either. You won’t like this advice, but here it is: Leave all the guns at home. All of them. Yes, we understand that goes against your very message — that guns aren’t the problem, people are — but that’s not how that message will be received by the people you claim to be trying to persuade. While we’re quoting pop culture, let’s quote some more. Remember the famous line in “Cool Hand Luke” where the captain tells Luke: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” You’re the ones trying to communicate your message; the onus is on you to present your message in a way your listener is more likely to accept.
If you really want to get to get legislators’ attention — to surprise them in favorable ways and increase the chance of someone actually listening to you — here’s what you ought to do. Don’t send any men to Richmond. Send only women. Let them make the case about the importance of firearms in self-defense. We’re being serious here. The question is: Are you?