The Weekender: Gun rally, firearms debate dominate opinion pages

State Police stand outside the Capitol on the opening day of the General Assembly's 2020 session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Programming note: The Weekender is moving. Starting this coming week, this newsletter will go out on Saturdays. 

Mercury commentary ICYMI: In a guest piece, Alexa Capeloto, an associate professor of journalism at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explores how schools like George Mason University get to keep secret donors who can influence instruction. Mercury columnist Bob Lewis took a look at Virginia legislation that would let college athletes profit off their names and likenesses, another nail in the coffin for the “myth” of college athletic amateurism.

Our Ivy Main also broke down two big omnibus energy bills in the works this session, and how they could be improved. In another guest piece, Sarah Bedard Holland, CEO of Virginia Health Catalyst, formerly the Virginia Oral Health Coalition, argues for including a dental benefit in Virginia’s Medicaid program. Karla Loeb, with Sigora Solar, says the Clean Economy Act, one of those omnibus energy bills, will ensure “an equitable transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.”

And, with Monday’s gun rally looming and the extremist threats that came with it, I posited that our age of misinformation is driving much of the inflammatory rhetoric.

About that gun rally: The Roanoke Times called Republicans’ response to Gov. Ralph Northam’s Capitol Square gun ban “tone deaf.”  “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,” the paper wrote. “Those comments, by the way, went without reprimand, without removal. Really?”

Virginian-Pilot columnist Gordon Morse also had some thoughts on the spread of ubiquitous misinformation: “Guns save lives and vaccines don’t. So, say some of our fellow Americans and they mean to prevail on those points,” he wrote. “Technology will put unified and angry people in Richmond on Monday. But it will not change the reality that we must live with ourselves and reach, if we can, a common understanding.”

Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, says the extremist backlash against new gun restrictions won’t halt the progress being made in Virginia or elsewhere: “Because the facts aren’t on their side, and the people aren’t on their side, gun extremists have decided to lie, threaten, and harass women and moms. When volunteers like me have the audacity to tweet about common-sense gun laws, they threaten rape and murder.”

The Washington Post’s editorial board said the gun lobby’s “combustible rhetoric” over new gun restrictions “is wildly detached” from reality. “Tailor-made to stoke furor, it has found an online echo chamber among neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other militant groups planning to join gun advocates at the Capitol in Richmond next Monday for an event that officials worry could reprise the chaos in Charlottesville in 2017.”

The Free Lance-Star says gun-rights groups are better served leaving their weapons at home for the rally: “If the governor and the General Assembly overstep their bounds, gun owners are not without recourse. They still have the courts and the ballot box as legal remedies. That’s how our system of government works,” the paper wrote, adding that “any violence that might erupt would only serve to undermine rally organizers’ claims that responsible, law-abiding gun owners in Virginia are not the problem.”

The gun rally is unlikely to deter Democrats from passing new regulations, observed veteran Virginia political writer and radio commentator Norman Leahy in the Post: “The public policy wind, then, is at Democrats’ backs. And no amount of sanctuary county resolutions, face-to-face lobbying or vocal protests is strong enough to change it. That doesn’t mean Democrats can do whatever they please on guns.”

Hooray for the ERA: The Richmond Times-Dispatch said Virginia was “long overdue” in passing the Equal Rights Amendment.  “As the nation marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of women’s suffrage, endorsing a measure that would make discrimination based on gender unconstitutional sends a strong message that Virginia — the birthplace of American democracy — values equality.”

A broad green energy bill for Virginia: “The Clean Economy Act is what years of backlash and struggle against Dominion have been leading to,” wrote a pair of environmental activists in a Post op-ed. “A full one-third of House and Senate members have pledged not to take election campaign money from Dominion precisely so leaders can listen to their voters in moments like this — not Dominion.”

Sanctuary in the eye of the beholder: “When it comes to shielding immigrants whose initial act on American soil is an illegal one, leftist officials are often quick to declare their municipalities ‘sanctuary cities’ where, essentially, violators of federal immigration law receive local succor,” The Winchester Star wrote. “But when the cause is actually constitutional — preservation of the Second Amendment — Democrats and their ilk, maintain all rules should be followed.”

Local control: Local governments should be able to decide the fate of Confederate statues, The Daily Progress says. “They should be free to remove statues or other items from public spaces. But if that happens, arrangements ought to be made for the statues’ preservation. Future generations should be granted the opportunity to make their own decisions on the issue as well.

A harsher master: The Roanoke Times bemoaned the lack of representation from Southwest Virginia on some General Assembly committees: “Ultimately demography is a harsher political master than the Democrats ever will be. Not having a voice on key committees in Richmond is something the region is going to have to get used to.”

‘Do no harm’: The Virginian-Pilot said the Democrats will be smart to follow Northam’s pledge to “First do no harm,” calling it “a darn good message for this ambitious new General Assembly. Northam should repeat it often.“

Migratory birds: The Pilot also blasted VDOT for paving over an island used for decades by migratory birds without a plan to replace it.  “Certain accommodations must be made for vital transportation projects such as this, of course. But what price must be paid in the name of progress? And what’s a few dollars more if it protects the natural environment so central to this region’s identity?”

And a Byrd that shouldn’t migrate: The Winchester Star argues that a statue of “Massive Resistance” Gov. Harry Byrd should remain on Capitol Square. “Mr. Byrd, his antediluvian segregationist stances notwithstanding, was a historical giant — one of Virginia’s most progressive governors (a stringent anti-lynching law and a much-needed road-building plan) and then a titan of the U.S. Senate as protector of the U.S. budget.”

Letter of the week: “I just wish that all those gun rights advocates who showed up at the Capitol this week would have to endure a prolonged lockdown of their school as our grandchild did this week at Moody Middle School,” Judith Bledsoe Baile of Richmond wrote to the RTD.  “Perhaps then the terror and the insanity of it all would become real.”

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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]