Rally attendees packed the streets around the Capitol by mid morning. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Lori Haas

In January of 1957, 12 sticks of dynamite were found at the Rev. Martin Luther King’s home in Montgomery, Alabama. The fuses had been lit, but were smoldered out.

At the time, he was a 28-year-old Baptist minister and lead organizer of the Montgomery bus boycotts. Authorities later speculated that the segregationists who placed them there wanted the evidence to be found as a way to send an unmistakable message of intimidation.

This was not the only time King’s home was a target of violent threats. During the bus boycotts alone, his family received countless threatening letters, small explosives were detonated on his front porch and a shotgun was fired at the residence from a moving car window.

But it was this first incident of the ignited dynamite that was the impetus for a sermon King delivered the next morning when he said the threat caused an admission of vulnerability and, ultimately, an epiphany.

“I realize there are moments when I wanted to give up and I was afraid,” he said. But an internal voice “almost coming out of nowhere” boldly told him to “stand up for truth, stand up for righteousness.”

He went on to say, “Since that morning I can stand up without fear. So, I’m not afraid of anybody this morning.”

As we saw on Capitol Square yesterday, it’s a sad truth that intimidation, dangerous rhetoric and threats of violence are still a part of our political discourse in Virginia some 63 years later. Armed militias, many from out of state, descended on Richmond as a show of force and outward aggression against legislation being considered in the General Assembly designed to prevent the rise of gun violence in the Commonwealth.

The language and actions of many of these organizers are breathtakingly aggressive, with the president of a well-known gun advocacy group recently saying that he’s not worried about his protests getting out of hand because he’ll be there with “enough citizens armed with handguns to take over a modern mid-sized country.”

Charming.

As a result, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence reluctantly decided to postpone our annual Day of Advocacy out of an abundance of caution to our volunteers, advocates and staff, many of whom are survivors of gun violence.

In the past, we have faced armed individuals trying to intimidate us each year. But this year was different; in the days leading up to our events, we received credible information that heavily armed white supremacists will be seeking to incite violence.

This kind of rhetoric even prompted unprecedented actions on behalf of the state executive branch and the highest levels of law enforcement in the commonwealth, with Gov. Ralph Northam rightfully declaring a state of emergency and moving to ban guns from protests on Capitol Square and a joint statement from Virginia State Police, City of Richmond Police and the Division of Capitol Police saying in part that “any violation of the law, non-peaceful protest, or attempts to intimidate fellow Virginians will not be tolerated.”

Unfortunately, the same restraint wasn’t found among some Virginia Republicans in recent weeks, many of whom have been eager to point fingers with accusations of overreach at those who were elected to make substantive changes to gun laws following the mass shooting in Virginia Beach and the embarrassingly brief special session that followed.

Instead of denouncing this violent rhetoric and urging protesters to keep their cool, GOP leaders in the legislature like Del. Todd Gilbert initially shrugged their shoulders with statements saying that he “hope(s) that the governor and Virginia Democrats are paying attention,” before changing his tune after getting a security briefing.

But despite the threats of armed militias, there is some good news: By the end of this legislative session, Virginia will be a safer place. Progress has already been made in just one full week of the 2020 legislative session, with the new gun violence prevention majority moving safety measures through committees that wouldn’t have even considered these bills just twelve months ago.

This includes provisions that establishes the life-saving Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO), universal background checks, a bill that would allow localities to prohibit firearms at permitted events, and the long-overdue reinstatement of a law that limits sales of handguns to one per month — policies supported by the overwhelming majority of Virginians.

Looking forward, we still have a way to go before these measures become laws, but these first steps are significant and courageous.

In the face of threatening behavior, it’s tempting to pull out of a hot-button conflict like gun safety. But on the day after we celebrated King, I think it would be a disservice to his legacy for lawmakers and peaceful citizen activists to walk away from this important ongoing debate.

The agitators have left. They got their headlines. They made their points. But we are still here. And our message is far simpler than theirs: We will stand up without fear.

Lori Haas is the Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.