Two men watch demonstrations outside the Virginia Capitol Tuesday during a special session of the legislature called to consider gun control legislation. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury)
On one side of Bank Street, the chant was “Floor votes now.” On the other, a parody version: “More guns now.”
For most of the late morning Tuesday, the divide over gun regulation at Virginia’s Capitol was literal and physical.
Nothing that happened later in the day bridged the chasm.
Republicans voted to hightail it out of town despite some glimmers the day before that something of substance might be achieved, even it was the comparatively low-hanging fruit of regulating guns in local government buildings. The Senate majority leader, Tommy Norment, R-James City, if he is to be believed, took his penchant for spending his time on the public dime playing petty partisan games too far this time.
“In this theater of politics, I had some Machiavellian thoughts,” Norment told reporters, a remark that surely triggered a mighty roll from the moldering corpse of the Florentine schemer at the invocation of his name by this ‘merigan. “I thought perhaps the administration might bite on that.”
Whatever Norment’s true motivations, his too-cute-by-half move caught his caucus and pro-gun activists off guard. Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, the majority whip, threatened to resign his leadership post.
And at a noon rally organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, President Philip Van Cleave (you remember him) said the organization had put some major pressure on Norment after learning about his bill, which the gun group said “betrayed” Virginia gun owners.
But who held the high ground after the day was done? And what does it mean for November, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up and Republicans will attempt to cling to their tiny majorities in the House and Senate?
Some insights might be gleaned from the heavily armed assemblage near the Bell Tower, where there was what could be construed as subtle acknowledgement of shifting winds on guns.
To be sure, the rally featured the standard fare about the virtues of good guys (and “gals”) with guns; the liberal media; inalienable rights to weaponry the founders couldn’t have conceived of, the need for an armed citizenry to resist a tyrannical government, accounts of guns used to protect life and property, claims about the inefficacy of gun regulation and background checks and lots of griping about being forced to use the state’s sound system.
But there were also some softer notes, including some tentative support for Virginia Beach Republican Del. Glenn Davis’ proposal to allow localities to restrict guns in government buildings as a “good compromise for now” and calls for respectful dialogue with gun-control advocates.
“Discourse is what our republic was founded on. The other side wants safer communities, most of them, in all truth and reality,” said Brendan Mooney, a member of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
And there was something else: Lots of talk about the need for the gun rights movement to diversify.
Speakers urged the gun-rights group’s members to reach out to new people from other walks of life, including the LGBT community and different ethnic and racial groups.
“How many people have brought someone new to the range? How many people have put a fence-sitter on the range?” Mooney asked. “That’s what we need to do guys, this is a numbers game and this is also something that’s very near and dear to my heart.”
Maj Toure, an African-American activist from Philadelphia who founded Black Guns Matter, a nonprofit that conducts urban conflict resolution, firearms training and Second Amendment education, was the featured speaker. Toure hearkened back to Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia and the hardening of racial lines that followed.
“This is racist, this policy of gun control,” Toure said. “You need to make sure that you’re reaching out to everyone, informing them.”
He also unsettled some, but not all, in the crowd by referencing colonists’ willingness to violently rebel against the English crown.
“A patriot is a woman or man that loves his countrymen to the point where they will protect their countrymen and women from a tyrannical government,” he said. “The founding fathers shot the British. … I am a fan of diplomacy. I am a fan of legislative action. I am a fan of civil discourse. History though, has shown me otherwise. … Y’all got a person with their foot on the neck of a tyrant. It probably got past the point of diplomacy.”
After his remarks, Toure was mobbed by rallygoers who queued to shake his hand or pose for pictures.
“The left has done a good job of convincing people from the hood this is a Klan rally,” Toure told another pro-gun activist.
After the rally, I asked Van Cleave how efforts to broaden the membership base of the VCDL were going.
“It’s still mostly white people,” he said. “We’re working on it.”
I also asked him about whether momentum might be shifting on gun control, with Virginia becoming bluer and the hundreds of people marshaled nearby to demand stricter firearms regulation. He said there was a difference in the two sides, chiefly the out-of-state money fueling his opponents.
“They don’t have the grassroots going like gun owners,” he said.
However, Republicans haven’t won a statewide election in a decade. Democratic voters are still angry about President Donald Trump. And in Virginia, Republicans may have handed them an energizing issue for this fall, even as polls suggest the party’s hardline stance against any new gun regulation is out of step with most voters. Looking down the barrel of being consigned to the minority, the GOP appears to be gambling that the gun control fervor will die down enough by November to allow them to hold on.
“When you are going to do something unpopular you might as well do it quickly and try to make it a one-day story. This session was lose-lose for the GOP,” as Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political science professor, told the Mercury.
“The special session was going to help the Democrats in November regardless of what the Republicans in the majority chose to do,” he added. “They would be able to take credit for some new laws or attack Republicans for opposing actions that are more popular with voters than not. Now, voters will be focusing on guns this fall, not the political scandals of Democratic leaders.”
Would it have been smarter to come to the table on a modest measure that could have blunted what will surely be a widely employed attack line against vulnerable Republicans?
We’ll find out in a few months.
The GOP has made its bed, and now it’s got to lie down.
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