Did someone invent a time machine? Is it once again, Aug. 10, 2017 — the date before the horrific and ultimately deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville?
We ask because of the tone-deaf reaction of some Republican leaders to Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision to declare a state of emergency in advance of Monday’s Gun Lobby Day in Richmond, which organizers claim may draw upwards of 100,000 people. Northam said law enforcement had “received credible intelligence” —some from “dark web channels used by white nationalists outside Virginia,” where people have talked about “weaponizing drones” and “storming our Capitol.” In response, Northam has declared a state of emergency — effective through Tuesday night —that bans a variety of weapons from the capitol grounds. Those include, according to the governor’s executive order, “sticks, torches, poles, bats, shields, helmets, caustic substances (i.e., pepper spray), hazardous materials, scissors, razor blades, needles, toy guns, toy weapons, fireworks, glass bottles, laser pointers, aerosol containers, baseballs, softballs, UAVs/Drones, or any item that can inflict bodily harm that is visible, other than firearms.” Of course, what really seems to have upset Republicans is that the order also bans firearms, as well.
“While we are grateful for the precautions taken by law enforcement,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County, “the Governor’s actions will unfortunately impede the ability of people to exercise not only their Second Amendment rights, but their First Amendment rights as well.” Senate Republicans complained that Northam’s actions “may be serving to heighten rather than assuage tensions.” State Republican Chairman Jack Wilson was even sharper: “Northam and the rest of the Virginia Democrats have made their session goal crystal clear: a disarmed, vulnerable, and subservient citizenry.”
We understand part of the Republican response — but only part. Under Republicans, guns were allowed in the State Capitol itself. Now the Democrats who are newly in charge of the General Assembly have banned guns in the building, and Northam has temporarily extended this ban to the whole capitol grounds. For Republicans who adhere to the belief that guns aren’t the problem, people are, the rules inconvenience the right of gun owners to carry a legal item — although we hasten to point out that even a conservative U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment is not absolute, that some restrictions on gun ownership don’t constitute an unconstitutional infringement. The best analogy to that: The Constitution also guarantees freedom of assembly, but you still need a parade permit to march down the street. Making Capitol Square a gun-free (and stick-free, torch-free, etc.) zone for a few days hardly seems a constitutional offense. But that’s philosophy, airy and debatable. Here’s the practicality: Charlottesville 2017. The Republicans sniping at Northam seem to act as if Charlottesville never happened. They are taking a mighty big gamble here.
Thousands — apparently tens of thousands — of people plan to show up Monday to make known their very negative feelings about the proposed gun laws that Democrats want to pass. These may well all be law-abiding people who have come to peacefully lobby their elected representatives. We’ve just seen lots of big crowds at local governments across the state — as many boards of supervisors and a few city councils have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.” The passions at those were high, but they also all happened without any incidents. This is just democracy in action, whether you agree with the results or not. The danger Monday isn’t from one of those Second Amendment sanctuaries rallies on a statewide scale, it’s the very real possibility of that event being used by others who have a very different agenda. Even Gilbert acknowledged that in his statement: “While we fully expect this to be peaceful, there are legitimate concerns of a few bad actors hijacking the rally. Law enforcement says those agitators are acting on their own volition and are not part of the busloads of Virginians visiting the Capitol.”
These are not hypothetical concerns. Again, Charlottesville. We don’t know what police are hearing on those “dark web channels” but we know what we’ve seen on Facebook, where people have posted comments on the pages of at least one Republican state legislator that Democrats should be hung or shot. Those comments, by the way, went without reprimand, without removal. Really?
We understand that Republicans and Democrats have very different views on the role of guns in society and whether they’re a good thing or a bad thing. But it seems to us that Republicans ought to embrace Northam’s declaration, rather than criticize it. Why? Because they’re the ones with the most to lose here if something goes wrong.
Let’s suppose that some trouble-making white nationalists (the phrase is redundant, of course) show up Monday and cause trouble. Whose cause suffers then? Not the white nationalists, who are beyond shame. It will be all those law-abiding gun owners who honestly believe the bills being contemplated by the General Assembly are wrong-headed. Would some incident at Monday’s rally cause the legislature to rethink what it’s doing? No. Some incident will likely inspire the legislature to act even more quickly — and become a national cause célèbre that undermines gun rights elsewhere.
The evidence of this can be found, once again, in Charlottesville. Did that white nationalist rally, ostensibly in defense of the Robert E. Lee statue, make it harder to remove that statue? No, just the reverse. The statue may still be there, but what happened that summer day in 2017 has only strengthened the hand of those who want to bring it down. That rally certainly helped hasten the demise of Confederate statues elsewhere. Before Charlottesville, there was a historical argument — however weak or strong — that could be made on behalf of those statues. Now, anyone making those arguments risks being considered by some as standing on the same side as a bunch of white supremacists. That’s not a good public relations look.
Same here: There’s a perfectly valid argument to be made on behalf of gun rights, but that argument will be undermined and besmirched if Monday’s rally gets disrupted by hate groups and so-called “militias.” That’s why Republicans ought to welcome Northam’s declaration, not disparage it.