How Virginia’s Gun Rally Dodged a Bullet

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S1: Hi, I’m wondering when you are flying out to cover a rally where, you know, a lot of people are going to be armed. How. How do you prepare?

S2: So I’ve been covering gun politics in the United States for like seven years now. So being around a lot of people with guns, that doesn’t scare me because I do that all the time. And nothing bad has ever happened to me.

S3: Lois Beckett covers gun politics and gun violence for The Guardian. And a lot of her writing, she’s trying to convince whoever’s reading to check their bias when it comes to guns. Lewis herself, she’s pretty comfortable around a firearm.

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S2: Yeah. I mean, I like first shot a gun with a friend, a really close friend. And many years ago, even before I started writing about guns. And, you know, if I’ve gone shooting periodically since, often with friends, it really frustrates me to see coverage of the gun debate in America.

S4: That’s just ignorant or dismissive of this consumer product. That’s just pretty normal in America. There like two things that are true about having 300 or 400 million guns in America. And one is that you get evidence of that, that people are really dumb and they do dumb things and they get hurt and other people get hurt. But it’s also true that like for the most part, people are just a lot less dumb than we think they are.

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S3: So when Lois was getting ready to go to Richmond, Virginia, last week to cover a massive gun rally at the state capital, she wasn’t nervous. Not exactly.

S2: The guns weren’t the thing that were freaking me out when I was flying out to Virginia. It was the conspiracy theories. That was what was scary.

S3: Mixed in with the Second Amendment diehards. Lois was expecting to run into neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Holocaust deniers. So the morning of that protest, Lois woke up before dawn, went outside, tried to get a sense of the mood.

S2: By the time the sun rose, the streets were already packed. People are standing shoulder to shoulder in these couple of streets around the capital square in Richmond. And that makes people a little bit nervous because there’s not a lot of exits. There’s not a lot of places to run.

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S5: Militias started to arrive playing a fanfare of trumpets and drums, carrying flags. This is a very tightly packed crowd.

S1: By midday, this crowd was chanting.

S4: But it was also, for the most part, a crowd that was in a good mood and stayed in a good mood. That’s easy when there’s no one who’s really showed up there to disagree with you today on the show.

S6: We’re gonna revisit this rally and talk about why no one really showed up to disagree with these protesters then. Lois Beckett is going to explain what the people she met can tell you about where the fight for gun reform heads from here. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

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S3: Gun rights activists gathered in front of Virginia’s statehouse on Monday for what’s called lobby day. It’s a day that they could express opposition to a raft of proposed gun control measures going into the protest. Virginia declared a state of emergency. The FBI announced charges against three extremists who had talked about coming to Richmond to incite violence. So it was a relief to Lois Beckett that most of the people she met at Monday’s demonstration were calm and orderly, like this guy she met while she was in a crush of people. His name was Todd. He’d come up from South Carolina to join the protest.

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S2: So I literally bounced off Todd’s shotgun and he just said something like, you’re okay? Very calmly. And I wanted to tweet about it because I felt that was pretty characteristic, because I think people who haven’t spent a lot of time around gun owners or especially a crowd of gun owners, people who are nervous about guns have this idea that all of them are cowboys or that they’re always looking for an opportunity to pull out their gun and shoot. And that is true of some people. But I think what’s true of a lot of gun owners is that they’ll tell you straight out that even though they’re carrying a gun, they very sincerely pray that they never have to use it.

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S7: So Todd seemed to see his role as almost a defender. You said you said part of what he told you was, you know, he had used his firearm to defend a woman he saw being assaulted.

S2: And what was really interesting about that is it clearly was something that happened, I think, 20 years ago, and that he still felt deeply and he said he’s still heard from the woman. And he said he didn’t actually fire his gun at that time, that just having a gun was enough to stop somebody from being hurt enough for him to take control of the situation. He didn’t have to pull the trigger. He didn’t have to kill anyone. And I think that’s something that is so important to understanding the gun debate and also understanding the political meaning of this rally. Was that a lot of outsiders looked at all those people with guns coming in and were worried that there were gonna be bullets flying. And the gun owners were like, no, of course, we’re not going to do that. But the whole point is that you don’t have to fire a gun and you don’t have to hurt anyone to change the power dynamics of a situation. That’s the point of having a gun in the first place. And that is true politically as well. That’s true in terms of self-defense.

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S1: And the fact that this guy, Todd, had come all the way from South Carolina shows you how it’s happening in Virginia, had really attracted national attention from all sorts of people. Now, in January, the Virginia State House flipped blue and gun control was top of the legislators agenda. So I’m wondering, before this rally, how had you seen online communities, people like Todd begin to respond once the Democrats were seated in Virginia?

S2: So one of the reasons that I started paying so much close attention to Virginia was because I was hearing from some gun rights activists that the rhetoric about Virginia was freaking them out and that it felt new and different. People started talking very, very rapidly about civil war. And that was happening on the ground in Virginia. I read a lot of the local news coverage of just small meetings all across the straight state in big cities and small counties and repeated references to tyranny or to treason or to saying, I’m worried that there might be another war. And at the same time in online communities and this we’re talking about like straight gun rights, Facebook groups, but also chatrooms and more extreme areas where white supremacists and neo-Nazis are talking to each other. People are using another word boogaloo, which is this semi ironic term for civil war and saying, does the boogaloo begin in Virginia? And the boogaloo isn’t just any kind of civil war. It’s specifically the civil war that starts when the government tries to confiscate Americans guns.

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S3: For these people talking about civil war, a protest about the Second Amendment was really just a means to an end. The neo-Nazis who are arrested ahead of Richmond’s lobby day. Allegedly, they wanted to start violence by throwing fireworks into the crowd. They talked about poisoning water supplies. The idea was to incite a race war.

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S8: So what we know is that neo-Nazis looked at this big gun rights rally in Richmond and they saw it as an incredible opportunity to radicalize people and to radicalize people through violence. They saw a lot of ordinary citizens who were very angry about potential gun control laws, who are frustrated at the government, who didn’t trust the government, and who are listening to a lot of very wild and crazy conspiracy theories about what the government might do to them and how the government might be cracking down on conservative gun owners. They were all assembling together. And so there actually were discussions of violence. We know because of court filings released yesterday that there were a small group of neo-Nazi members of this group called the base, who are sitting in Maryland discussing how wonderful it would be to open fire on the crowd in Richmond and saying explicitly that they saw the ordinary, normal gun rights activists who were showing up there as already kind of radicalized and ripe for further radicalization. And what’s very good is that we’re finding out about those plans through court documents after the FBI arrested these guys that had been recording them in their house as they were making these plans about Richmond, as they were packing their car with supplies and buying ammunition. And we’re not finding about it afterwards after people are dead.

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S3: These members of the base thought gun rights activists in Virginia could be radicalized in court documents. They talk about making use of what’s happening in Virginia. They believed they could tap into gathering anger in rural white communities as Democrats came to power and started talking about ways to pass gun control.

S1: You know, I’ve been able to find all of these videos from local town meetings, often with a sheriff there where people are confronting the sheriff, clearly feeling a lot of fear that someone’s going to take their guns. And the sheriff is having to defend themselves and say, listen, I’m not going to do that. You know, I found one video from a Gomory County, Virginia. And the sheriff says, I love the Second Amendment. And if there’s a law that says we have to take something, I’m not going to put people in danger, including my people if my officers as long as I’m here or overseas. Well, it sounds really intense.

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S2: I think it was an incredibly intense in part because people were really afraid that this confiscation might actually happen. And the idea of government taking guns has been like the central fear of the gun rights movement for decades. But in Virginia, people felt like that was actually moving closer to reality, whether it actually was. I think there’s not a lot of evidence that that is the case. But what is true is that the political landscape around guns has changed dramatically. What is so astonishing about the gun debate in America is that there really for decades there has not been an anti-gun side. There has been the Republican Party, which is completely and extremely pro-gun. No laws are appropriate, essentially. And then there’s the Democratic Party, which has been the sort of moderately pro-gun, like maybe some tiny little restrictions here and there, but really not much. And what we’ve seen, especially over the past five and 10 years, is really the beginnings of actual representation for the huge number of Americans who are truly anti-gun, who truly would prefer to see a country where there are no guns, who would actually who want assault weapons to be banned and not just banned. They don’t want people to have them anymore. And so what we’ve seen as the Democratic Party is actually shifting left on guns to align with the actual opinions of the American people on guns. And so for the first time in decades, gun rights advocates are not having to sort of make up an enemy completely, that it’s threatening to take their guns when, in fact, they’re actually starting to hear more from voices of people who really want to change America’s gun culture fundamentally.

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S1: And the details here are fascinating to me, because you have in Virginia, in Culpeper County, sheriff saying he’s going to swear people in as sheriff’s deputies so they could keep their firearms if someone tries to take them away. And then you have this group called the Oath Keepers saying we’re going to offer to train militias that operate underneath the sheriffs so that if something happens with gun control, you’ll be able to respond. And for someone from the outside, it feels really sudden and pretty specific and kind of alarming.

S2: And what you’re hearing. From sheriffs in Virginia is something that sheriffs across the country have said at various times that there is a movement of conservative and rural law enforcement, particularly sheriffs, who are saying we will not enforce these gun laws and MSA in some cases just haven’t enforced gun laws. You know, there’s been a big push since Sandy Hook to pass universal background check laws at the state level. But researchers who have looked at how these laws have worked in states like Washington or Colorado have found that the number of background checks didn’t really go up as much it was supposed to add, didn’t really have the safety benefit it was supposed to. Even though the law was passed. And that’s because it’s just not being enforced. And that’s in part because local law enforcement is not interested in enforcing it.

S1: Well, then, of course, you have the imagery right of Monday where it’s not just a quiet, non-violent protest in the streets of Richmond. It is nonviolent. But there’s always that implicit idea of violence just in the fact that there are so many guns there. I mean, you talked about it yourself. You talked about how just having the gun puts you on a different level than everyone else around you.

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S2: When I asked some gun rights activists about this, if you know them parading around the state was guns, was a threat to legislators. They were like, no, absolutely not. That’s so unfair. But if you looked at some of the signs people were carrying or the T-shirts they were wearing. I mean, there was a fake guillotine set up in the middle of the street outside the Capitol building that said something like, you know, this is what happens to tyrants. There were two young men walking around wearing red T-shirts with rifles on them that said make politicians afraid again. This wasn’t very subtle. This was definitely drawing a line and they didn’t have to fire a shot to do that.

S1: I mean, we should be clear here. And you kind of alluded to it before the conversation. When you see people get so upset, whether it’s at this rally or at these little local meetings about guns. A lot of it is about people coming to take your guns. But the legislature in Virginia, they’re not trying to take away people’s guns, at least not right now. Right.

S2: So that’s what’s so interesting about all of this is no, there was never, ever any bill that said we are going to confiscate your guns. And there was a lot of conspiracy theories and a lot of bills totally unrelated to guns that were somehow roped into this massive narrative. What is true about Virginia is that an initial draft of an assault weapon ban, which was public, did say that it was going to be a ban on the possession of assault weapons. And it wasn’t clear what was going to happen to this sort of military rifles, the air 15s, the high-capacity magazines that Virginians already owned. And right after the election, in an interview, Virginia’s governor was asked, well, what’s going to happen to the guns? Virginians already owned. Is there going to be confiscation? And that was the moment where I would have expected the governor to be. Absolutely not. No, no, no confiscation, because that’s usually what Democrats have said.

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S8: And instead, he was like, you know, I got a consult with my public safety director. You know, we’ll get back to you on that. And just that, you know, just the refusal to openly say, no, we’re not the Apsley not going to confiscate the guns. In one interview like the next day, in a different radio interview, the governor was like, no, we’re not going to confiscate guns. That was enough to fuel incredible fears, these fears.

S3: Couldn’t help but notice that on Monday at that rally, they were being embodied by a very specific group of people, white men. And for her, that simple fact helps explain why Monday’s protest went so smoothly. Only one arrest for a single person wearing a mask, even though plenty of people were covering their faces and plenty of people were armed, too.

S2: So sometime in mid morning, I was looking around at this crowd packed in the streets full of people with guns in the crowd on the hill, in the capital. And I just realized that the word. No riot cops anywhere. There were just no lines of police standing and guarding and like hovering over protesters. There were to be cleared. There were a lot of police there and I am sure heard that there were a lot of police in riot gear waiting somewhere in case they were necessary. But they weren’t visible there. They weren’t aggressive. They weren’t antagonizing. And in 2018, I was at a student protest at the University of Virginia, where there were a lot of totally an unarmed college. Kids and local residents there marking the anniversary of Charlottesville. And as young activists were talking to each other just, you know, on the lawn, a line of 150 riot cops in full gear sort of stood out and just hovered at the edge of the protest. And that turns up the heat and the tension and event. Extraordinarily, one of the reasons that Monday was so calm was because the police didn’t antagonize anyone who was there. They just let them exercise their First Amendment rights without suggesting symbolically that they were dangerous without hovering over them. But in fact, what happened at this rally was a lot of people who are actually breaking the law, especially breaking the mask law, were treated as if they were law abiding. They were let allowed to go on their way. And that kept the protest calm. And that allowed everyone in conservative media to say, oh, look, what an amazing law abiding protest. Conservatives, they’re not violent like those leftists. We don’t break the law. And, you know, some of them did break the law. The police just didn’t do anything about it.

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S7: It’s this interesting tension where in some ways what the police did was they made violence less possible, which is a good thing. But then the question becomes, who gets to be the person who can exercise their right to protest? Who gets to express themselves in this way? Like if it was a group of black men with guns. If it was a group of Muslim men with guns, would they have been treated the same way?

S2: I mean, many, many people were asking the question after the protest because just the lack of aggressive police presence was so striking. And, you know, it really is it comes down to who gets treated as an extremist or not. And you can be a white man carrying guns and shouting, we will not comply. We will not comply. Talking about the laws that the legislature is going to pass.

S9: And that was treated as freedom of speech, treated as legitimate, which you know it is. That’s actually good. That is the protection of the First Amendment. But if you have left wing protesters talking about racism or talking about police brutality, they are treated as an incredibly volatile threat, even when they’re not armed, even when they’re just kids.

S1: So immediately after this rally, the Virginia legislature, they were back in session. Did this protest make any difference in terms of how the Democrats played out their agenda?

S2: What’s really interesting about this protest, which is certainly a very strong marker, not just to Virginia politicians, but to politicians all over the country of what could happen if they try to pass certain kinds of gun control. You know, the assault weapon ban had already been shelved even before this protest happened. And a lot of the more controversial gun control laws, like the extreme risk protection order, a rat red flag bill that had been moving slowly. But the morning after, 22000 gun rights activists show up at the state capitol. There’s an actual hearing on a slate of gun rights bills, bills that would, for instance, make it easier to bring guns into churches in Virginia. And the Democrats listened to some debate on those bills and then they quashed them. And not that many people showed up for those actual bills. So it’s not clear how much of a difference that that had made. And it’s clear Democrats are moving forward with gun control and they’re going to pass some of it, but probably not some of the legislation that got people fired up the most, given all the reporting you’ve done and everything you saw when you’re in Virginia.

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S7: I have to say, I kept wondering to myself. If the Virginia legislature was able to pass an assault weapons ban, I just wondered if Virginia would actually be able to impose the new law. It sounds like the way local sheriffs are responding to just the idea of new restrictions means that it puts a limit on how much you can functionally get done.

S2: One of the reasons it is fair to call these fears about government gun confiscation America as conspiracies are unrealistic is that there are other states, more liberal states that have passed bans on assault weapons that have asked citizens demanded that they register the weapons. States like Connecticut. And what happens after that is not a government crackdown. What happens to the gun owners? Don’t comply and nothing happens. And so that’s how gun control works in America. And the most, quote unquote, radical liberal states is that even when you pass gun laws, nobody is going door to door to take guns away. And actually gun owners just de facto get to keep what they have. And even if they’re breaking the law, no to the time, no one really does anything about it. And when gun controls are enforced, often they’re enforced disproportionately on black Americans, on people of color. That’s another dynamic here. And a reason why some people on the left are very skeptical of gun control laws because they know the law isn’t enforced equally. And even though white Americans might show up to protest these laws, be worried about what might happen to them.

S9: They’re not necessarily the ones that are gonna suffer even from the laws that do get passed.

S10: Lois Beckett, thank you so much for talking to me. Thanks so much. Lois Beckett covers the politics of guns for The Guardian. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson. Daniel Hewat, Jason de Leon and Morra Silvers. I’m Mary Harris. You can find me during the day distracting myself on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk tomorrow. Lizzie O’Leary will be in this feed with what next TBD. I’ll be back Monday. Catch you then.