Democrats like to talk a lot about diversity, and with good reason. We live in a large, complicated country where many of our fellow citizens come from different races, ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations and backgrounds quite different from our own. And yet the genius of America — the beauty of America — is that we are able to count them all as part of the same people. We do this imperfectly, of course, but it is still an aspiration that sets us apart from many other countries. That is why immigrants from around the world clamor to come here, and become one of us. You don’t see them lined up trying to get into China, Iran or Russia. Our record for treating minorities is not always the best — in fact, for much of our history it’s been pretty shameful — but even our modern imperfections set us above many other societies.
What happens, though, when that diversity runs a different way than we usually talk about? More to the point, what happens when there’s a vocal conservative minority that finds itself at odds with the liberal majority in power?
We pose that philosophical question because that’s one way to think about Virginia’s current debate over guns.
There are many ways to look at this issue. The left tends to see guns as a public safety issue. The right sees guns as a constitutional rights issue. We will not adjudicate that dispute today. Instead, let’s look at it this way: How should a majority treat a minority that feels very strongly about something?
Part of the difficulty here is that neither side truly understands the other. Last week in Richmond we saw thousands of armed men and women in the street. One side saw an implicit threat; another side saw only law-abiding citizens. Winchester-area resident Greg Mauzy told The Winchester Star that “for a short period, Richmond was the safest city in Virginia — maybe the nation.” Others felt it was the most dangerous. We are unlikely to mediate those two opposing viewpoints anytime soon. But the General Assembly will pass some laws very soon that Mauzy and others very much won’t like.
Now, legislatures pass laws people disagree with all the time. Some of those objections are more passionate than others. Should that matter to the majority? If yes, then what is the threshold that should trigger some reflection and reconsideration? If no, what does that say about how the majority treats those in the minority? Just in case anyone is wondering, we’re not sure there are right and wrong answers to these. We’re just trying to prod people into thinking beyond their side’s customary talking points.
There are some right and wrong answers in the world, of course. Some issues involve moral questions. There were certainly many people who supported slavery in previous eras — or segregation in more recent ones. We can’t accommodate that, though. We didn’t say “oh, sorry, you feel strongly about that? Fine, we’ll exempt your community.” Well, actually we did for a long time — up until the Civil War for slavery and up through the civil rights issue for segregation. But eventually we set out to eradicate those evils from our society, however painful that process was. Do guns, though, involve a moral issue? Or merely a legal one? (Yes, we know gun rights advocates would say guns involve more than a legal issue, that this is a constitutional issue. However, even the right’s favorite Supreme Court justice — the late Antonin Scalia — held that not every restriction on guns qualifies as an unconstitutional infringement. Liberals didn’t like that decision — the Heller v. District of Columbia decision — because it expanded gun rights, but conservatives tend to overlook that it still made clear that those rights aren’t absolute. The person at the Bedford County Board of Supervisors who held up a sign that read ‘The Second Amendment is very clear’ apparently hasn’t read that decision).
Here’s the practical problem before Virginia: Gun rights advocates who once were in the majority now find themselves in the minority. Elections have consequences and the ones last November had big consequences. Some conservatives complain that some liberals refuse to recognize that Republicans won the 2016 presidential election, and they’re not entirely wrong. Here, though, gun rights advocates are essentially complaining that they lost the 2019 legislative elections. If Hillary Clinton supporters are supposed to graciously concede and acquiesce to the presidency of Donald Trump, shouldn’t gun rights advocates be doing the same when it comes to the General Assembly’s impending new gun laws? (Hint: Consistency is not a trait often found anywhere across the political spectrum).
The election results are a problem for those who oppose any new gun laws, but they’re also a problem for those who want stricter gun laws. That’s because our society isn’t simply polarized ideologically, it’s also polarized geographically. Many rural voters simply cannot fathom the concerns of urban and suburban Virginia — and vice versa. We’ve seen a big swath of Virginia — mostly, although not exclusively, rural communities — declare itself a “Second Amendment sanctuary.” Legally, that probably means nothing — unless sheriffs and other local officials really intend to ignore some laws or break others — but it certainly sends a political message. At its fundamental level that message is this: Many parts of Virginia see guns completely differently than others do. How do we legislate for a state that not only has such diverse views, but has those views geographically concentrated?
Virginia’s not alone in dealing with that question. Canada, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has a liberal national government that is trying to reduce carbon emissions but one province (Alberta) whose economy is based on fossil fuels. Great Britain, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is now headed toward Brexit, but Scotland voted emphatically to remain in the European Union. Neither country has a good solution to that kind of lumpy diversity. Scotland wants to vote on independence; Johnson has blocked that. Alberta sometimes talks about seceding from Canada. Should all those Second Amendment sanctuaries communities try to secede from Virginia? Nice fantasy, now back to the real world —– and our original query. How do we govern a society where the losers from one election passionately object to what the winners want to do? Or should that matter?