Opponents of gun control proposals gathered at the Capitol on the opening day of the 2020 legislative session. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Shortly after Barack Obama won his first term as president, I was sitting in a courthouse in South Louisiana waiting for the start of a proceeding in a trial I was covering.

The sheriff’s deputies who patrolled the courthouse were chatting with clerks about the havoc the new president-elect was about to create for gun owners. A new, exorbitant tax on ammunition would make it all but unaffordable, so stock up now, they advised.

And, worst of all: “I heard he wants to get sworn in on one of them Iranian bibles,” one said. Many of these people I saw every day, relying on them for leads on what was happening in the courthouse. I asked them about the provenance of their inside information on the new president’s gun agenda. Chain emails, the fake news of the era, turned out to be the source.

A few months later, I wrote a story about how local gun dealers couldn’t keep ammunition on the shelves and the same sheriff’s office was worried about finding enough rounds for range training.

“The American public just went bonkers,” one gun dealer told me. “People are panicked.“

Given the vast expansion of the ability to spread misinformation nowadays, those chain emails your older relatives used to forward so credulously seem like a quaint relics of a simpler time.

Now, with a bunch of gun bills before the Virginia General Assembly, some gun owners here, and some from out of state who are making ominous pledges to show up at the Capitol next week, are the ones going ham, the culmination of years of flame-stoking and fear-mongering by right-wing media, pro-gun and anti-government groups.

For a trip through the looking glass, check out what happened when a bill wholly unrelated to the gun debate by Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, about allowing certain public employees to strike, got sucked into the gun backlash spin cycle, with an assist from Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper.

This didn’t just circulate in the usual right wing online fever swamps, but made it into an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.

And when Politifact has headlines like this, you know we’re in the deep end of the pool:

Politifact Virginia. Jan. 2, 2020.

Believe it or not, there’s scarier stuff out there if you go looking for it. One firearm blog that I won’t link to, relying on a slew of half-truths and outright falsehoods, wrote this in December: “Battle lines are being drawn and there are people ready and willing to do ….things.” There are lots of references to civil war, and, if you think “boogaloo” just refers to a dance, maybe give this a read.

Virginia State Police, Richmond Police and the Capitol Police are already announcing road closures for Lobby Day on Monday, when thousands of gun activists are expected here at the Capitol.

And the AP reported Tuesday night that Gov. Ralph Northam “plans to declare a temporary emergency Wednesday banning all weapons, including guns, from Capitol Square” ahead of the gun rally Monday. The governor has scheduled a briefing for this afternoon, when he’ll presumably roll that out.

Citing two state officials, the AP reported that Northam “has grown increasingly concerned about numerous ominous-sounding postings on social media from forces outside Virginia. The official cited one posting that included a photo of an AR-15 and said there are ‘great sight angles from certain buildings’ near Capitol Square.”

Even the Virginia Citizens Defense League, the commonwealth’s most ardent pro-gun group, (never forget Puppy Pistol) is trying to tone down some of the rhetoric.

“There have been many rumors, videos and articles flying around the internet,” the group wrote in an email to members. “We cannot stress enough that this is a peaceful day to address our legislature. Yes, we hold a rally, but the point of the day is communication with our representatives. To our knowledge there are no credible threats of violence. That being said, please practice appropriate situational awareness. … The eyes of the nation and the world are on Virginia and VCDL right now and we must show them that gun owners are not the problem. Lead by example.”

A Colonial Heights sporting goods store has also been running radio ads warning about misinformation.

“BY NOW YOU ARE AWARE THAT THERE ARE A LOT OF PROPOSED GUN LAWS COMING TO OUR STATE. UNFORTUNATELY, THERE ARE ALSO PLENTY OF RUMORS BEING SPREAD PLUS FEAR-MONGERING AND ‘FAKE NEWS.’ AS YOUR LOCAL, FAMILY-OWNED DEALER OF FIREARMS AND OUTDOOR SPORTING GOODS FOR OVER 43 YEARS, WE’RE WORKING TO ELIMINATE THE FAKE NEWS BY ENGAGING AND TALKING WITH OUR STATE LEGISLATURE EVERY DAY TO HELP KEEP YOU INTELLIGENTLY INFORMED,” the store, Dance’s Sporting Goods, wrote on its website, with instructions on how to contact lawmakers.

Not like it matters to some of the extremists out there, who see every gun restriction as an infringement, but it bears repeating that the landmark Heller decision, the Roe v. Wade of the gun rights movement that firmly established the individual right to bear arms, affirmed the compatibility of gun laws and the Second Amendment.

And Florida’s red flag law, for example, which has resulted in hundreds of orders removing firearms from individuals, has been upheld by an appellate court. In the United States, courts, not so-called sanctuary counties, sheriffs, local prosecutors or self-declared militiamen, decide what’s constitutional.

These are, by and large, all things that us gun owners can and should live with, not a slippery slope to broad gun confiscation and FEMA death camps. Democrats certainly did themselves no favors by waiting weeks to clarify that they intended to make accommodations for existing owners of guns that would fall under their proposed assault weapons ban, which also raises thorny questions about registration, compliance and enforcement.

Firearm regulation in a nation with so many guns is not a panacea for gun violence, and Democrats shouldn’t lull themselves into thinking that regulating hardware will solve it all, particularly the shootings that disproportionately plague urban areas. Lawmakers should also remain open to ideas like the group-violence prevention program proposed last year by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

Indeed, as a Boston University researcher told legislators this past summer, three policies that could significantly cut homicides here in Virginia have nothing to do with restricting certain types of firearms.

Still, the package Democrats are pushing is an important part of reducing gun deaths, cracking down on straw purchases and, with proposed red flag laws, attempting to stop people before they use their guns to hurt themselves and others.

Even if Democrats get all the gun control items on their wish list — and with the NRA lobbying some sympathetic Democratic senators pretty hard, there’s some reason to believe they might not —  firearms still won’t be regulated half as stringently as motor vehicles. Keep that in mind amid all the sound and fury.

Previous article‘Raging granny’ faces music for pipeline protest: ‘Happy that I did it’
Next articleThe Virginia Clean Economy Act is a giant leap forward for Virginia energy policy
Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact him at [email protected]