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Virginia Democrats Won an Election. Gun Owners Are Talking Civil War
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=42128"><span class="small">Lois Beckett, Guardian UK</span></a>   
Friday, 10 January 2020 09:24

Beckett writes: "Thousands of Virginia residents have shown up at meetings across the state to try to block Democrats from enacting new gun laws, with some gun rights supporters openly discussing violent resistance and civil war."

A gun rights activist carries his handgun in a hip holster outside the Virginia state capitol building as the general assembly prepares to convene in Richmond, on 8 January. (photo: Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
A gun rights activist carries his handgun in a hip holster outside the Virginia state capitol building as the general assembly prepares to convene in Richmond, on 8 January. (photo: Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

Virginia Democrats Won an Election. Gun Owners Are Talking Civil War

By Lois Beckett, Guardian UK

10 January 20

Democrats’ pledge to pass new gun laws has sparked a grassroots pro-gun movement that will bring thousands of activists to a volatile rally this month

housands of Virginia residents have shown up at meetings across the state to try to block Democrats from enacting new gun laws, with some gun rights supporters openly discussing violent resistance and civil war.

The backlash to gun control in Virginia is being fueled by conspiracy theories and misinformation, and some observers worry that the escalating rhetoric may spark violence.

When Democrats won control of Virginia’s state government for the first time in 26 years in November 2019, they pledged to pass a series of standard gun control laws, including universal background checks and bans on military-style “assault weapons” and high-capacity ammunition magazines. The agenda was no surprise: state Democrats had run for office on a platform of gun violence prevention, backed by funding from national gun control groups.

But the pledge sparked a grassroots pro-gun movement whose size and intensity has surprised even longtime activists. In dozens of towns and counties, pro-gun Virginians have flooded local government meetings to oppose the new bills and to demand that their lawmakers pass “second amendment sanctuary” resolutions, which promise that local governments will not enforce state gun laws they see as unconstitutional.

Some of these activists have warned of violence if Democrats push forward with gun control. Multiple Democratic lawmakers have reportedly received threats, including death threats. At heated public meetings across the state and in long social media comment threads, some gun rights supporters are openly discussing the possibility of civil war. Many have warned of the need to fight back against “tyranny” or have compared Democratic lawmakers to the British forces during the revolutionary war. “I really do think we may be on the brink of another war,” one speaker told a crowd of at least 800 people in Pulaski county, the Roanoke Times reported.

The swift expansion of local pro-gun organizing in Virginia has also attracted the attention of national anti-government militias and white supremacist groups, who have “glommed on to” the grassroots movement, hoping to use it as a potential flash point that could lead to civil war and social breakdown, according to an analyst at the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors extremist groups.

Some observers worry these tensions may come to a head on 20 January, when a lobby day against gun control at Virginia’s state capitol is expected to attract thousands of people, including members of anti-government groups from other states. Local residents are concerned the day could turn violent, like the 2017 Unite the Right rally in nearby Charlottesville, Virginia.

So far, Ralph Northam, the state’s Democratic governor, has said that plans to pass new gun violence prevention laws will move forward despite the public backlash.

“Everyone needs to work to turn the rhetoric down – at the end of the day, this is about keeping people safe,” Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for the governor, said.

The beginnings of a movement

The forcefulness of Virginia’s second-amendment movement has taken even longtime organizers by surprise. Government meetings across the state that typically attract a few dozen people have seen overflowing crowds of hundreds or even thousands showing up to protest against new gun laws.

The main driver of the sanctuary movement has been the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a local pro-gun group that’s politically to the right of the National Rifle Association (NRA). But the group’s longtime president, Philip Van Cleave, said that sanctuary resolutions have been spreading across the state even faster than his group’s attempts to organize them.

Van Cleave sounded almost breathless in a mid-December interview as he described being overwhelmed with emails, phone calls, and membership requests. He said he expected VCDL’s membership to double over the course of that month, from 8000 to 16,000 members.

“I’m telling you, people that have never committed a crime, that are law-abiding, and pay their taxes, do everything right, don’t even have a speeding ticket, are saying, ‘I’m not giving up my guns,’” Van Cleave said.

The NRA and other national gun groups are not driving the sanctuary movement in Virginia, Van Cleave said. Though the NRA put out a statement supporting sanctuary resolutions, it has also made some effort to separate itself from the Virginia movement, organizing a separate lobbying day for NRA members on 13 January.

Not one of the Virginia Democrats’ proposed gun laws has been found to be unconstitutional by the US supreme court, and most of them have been repeatedly upheld by federal courts as consistent with the second amendment, according to Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California Los Angeles who specializes in gun policy.

Still, at least 125 counties, cities and towns across Virginia have passed some version of a second amendment sanctuary resolution since November, according to the Virginia Citizens Defense League. Just this week, the city council in Virginia Beach, the site of a major mass shooting last May, became one of the latest local governments to pass a resolution pledging to support citizens’ gun rights.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in the second amendment movement,” echoed Cam Edwards, a Virginia resident and former NRA TV host, and the editor of Bearing Arms, a pro-gun website. The closest political analogy would be the Tea Party, he said, “but this movement is centered around a single issue”.

Tensions flare

In themselves, sanctuary resolutions are largely symbolic. Virginia’s top prosecutor clarified in December that they “have no legal effect” and that local governments and local law enforcement officials “cannot nullify state laws”. But the resolutions have prompted pledges from some in law enforcement that they will refuse to enforce state gun laws they see as unconstitutional.

One sheriff in Culpepper county said that if Democrats passed restrictive new gun laws, he was willing to swear in thousand of local residents as sheriffs’ deputies in order to protect their gun rights. Local lawmakers in Tazewell County passed a resolution about the county’s right to train and form a citizen militia.

In Roanoke, when city council members refused to approve a sanctuary resolution, some in the audience shouted that the council was “treasonous”, WDBJ7 news reported.

Some Democrats’ responses to the attempt to nullify gun control laws have only made tensions worse.

In early December, a Democratic congressman from Virginia, Donald McEachin, publicly speculated that the governor might have to call in the national guard to enforce the new laws if local law enforcement officials would not. A spokeswoman for the governor said there was, in fact, no plan to call in the national guard. But the lawmaker’s suggestion, widely reported in media outlets, gave additional fuel to conspiracy theories about gun confiscation and prompted a defensive public statement from the national guard.

Meanwhile, outright lies and misinformation are helping to fuel gun owners’ concerns, including conspiracy theories that the state’s Democratic governor is going to shut off electricity to facilitate a gun grab, or that the United Nations is coming to take Virginians’ guns.

Claims of a second civil war

In response to both real policy proposals and conspiracy theories, some supporters of the sanctuary movement in Virginia are talking about the “boogaloo” – an ironic term for civil war that has spread through different online conversations, usually referring to the civil war that will break out if a government tries to take away citizens’ guns. The “boogaloo” meme originated as a joke about ridiculous movie sequels.

Gun rights commentators on YouTube are asking “Does the Boogaloo begin in Virginia?” and warning: “Folks, this is now or never” and “Tyranny is not something in the past”.

Such violent anti-government rhetoric is a traditional part of the gun debate in the United States. American gun owners have long vowed to respond with force to any government efforts to confiscate their firearms, arguing civilian gun ownership is protected in the Bill of Rights as a defense against government tyranny. They’ve embraced slogans like “come and take it” and “from my cold dead hands”.

But the conversation in Virginia has observers worrying that some people may be moving closer to actual violence.

“The rhetoric seems more revolutionary than ever,” Winkler, the UCLA law professor, said. Also new, he said: the possibility of “a lot of people coming in from out of state” to join protests against local Virginia gun laws.

Talk of civil war is not only circulating online, or among anti-government groups coming into Virginia from elsewhere. Van Cleave said he had heard concerns about civil war in phone calls, emails, and in-person conversations at events across the state.

“This is not people who are saying, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go fight.’ These are people who are concerned that this is where we’re headed. They’re seeing something, and they know if the government pushes the wrong buttons, it’s going to happen,’” Van Cleave said. “They’re very much aware that this is a powder keg.”

Democrats in Virginia are “kneeling in water and they’re about to grab the third rail on a train track, and I just don’t know if they realize it”, Van Cleave said. “This is different. I’ve never seen this much intensity with so many people. If they pass gun control, I don’t know where it’s going, but I’m just praying they don’t do it. Leave it alone. Walk away.”

White supremacists are recruiting

Virginia’s gun rights battle is already being covered widely in conservative media outlets. Donald Trump and the rightwing Arizona congressman Paul Gosar shared articles about it on Twitter. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson talked to a guest on his show about fears that local law enforcement in Virginia would be sent in to confiscate citizens’ guns. Carlson blamed the left for “trying to pick a fight, like a real fight, with rural Virginia”.

When gun rights supporters packed a local government meeting in Albemarle county, where Charlottesville is located, Matthew Christensen, a local activist, said he was shocked at the size of the turnout. The gun rights supporters were overwhelmingly white, he said, and the atmosphere was tense.

Christensen, an anti-racist activist who supports gun control, said he saw the sanctuary movement as rooted in white resentment.

“As white people, taking away privilege can feel like an attack, when it’s just a leveling of the playing field. And I think that’s where a lot of people are right now: they’re feeling attacked, and this is a way they can lash out,” Christensen said. “It almost seems like people are looking for a reason to pull a Bundy and attack the government.”

White supremacist and anti-government groups are gravitating towards the standoff over gun rights in Virginia because they see it as a opportunity for radicalization and recruitment, said Daryl Johnson, a former lead analyst for domestic terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security.

The Oath Keepers, an organization of current and former law enforcement and military officials described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as one of the country’s largest anti-government groups, announced that some of its members were already on their way to the state, with the intention of “helping Sheriffs raise and train an official armed posse in each county, under command of the Sheriff”. The Oath Keepers also called for members nationwide to head to Virginia to provide “boots on the ground” for the 20 January lobby day.

White supremacist “accelerationists” have seized on the standoff as the potential beginning of a civil war that will destroy the United States and allow them to build a white nation in its ruins, according to Alex Friedfeld, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League.

“The story they’re telling is that the Jews and immigrants are responsible for turning Virginia blue, and they’re coming to take your guns,” Friedfeld said. (Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire philanthropist and presidential candidate, is Jewish, and the gun violence prevention advocacy group he founded touted an investment of $2.5 million in Virginia’s 2019 elections to back local lawmakers who support gun control.)

To white supremacists, Virginia looks like a perfect example of their ideology: “You’ve got white replacement. You’ve got what they’re calling Jewish gun grabbers, and the people rising up, saying the government is illegitimate.”

Since mid-December, Friedfeld said, he has been monitoring the spread of conversations about Virginia and “boogaloo” among extremist groups online. He said he saw a clear distinction between extremist groups and Virginia’s “legitimate, law-abiding citizens who are are exercising their right to protest for what they believe in”.

But the “boogaloo” rhetoric has been growing, and not only on militia pages. “Some of it does appear to be spilling over on to other second amendment pages, predominantly in the comment sections,” he said.

Friedfeld cautioned that terms like “boogaloo” were designed to be catchy, and that they could take on different meanings in different conversations.

Fears of another Charlottesville

The convergence of armed gun rights supporters and out of state anti-government groups on Virginia’s capitol on 20 January, Martin Luther King Day, has some activists raising concerns about whether the lobby day could become another Charlottesville, where a day of volatile street-fighting ended with a white supremacist plowing a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Van Cleave said his group was relying on law enforcement to monitor extremist activity and to keep lobby day nonviolent. He said his group had no control over whether violent people of any ideology showed up to protest.

“It’s a free country,” he said. “We can’t order them not to come.”

Friedfeld, the ADL researcher, said he was reassured by what he saw as sincere efforts by the Virginia Citizens Defense League to keep lobby day peaceful, including requests that supporters not openly carry military-style rifles or other long guns.

A spokesman for the Virginia capitol police declined to answer specific questions about preparations for lobby day, sending only a generic statement about the agency’s “long history of working successfully with our law enforcement and public safety partners” to “provide a safe environment at Capitol Square for people to express their views.”

Many gun rights activists have been working to de-escalate the rhetoric in Virginia, even as they continue to fight against the passage of new gun laws. For weeks, in online conversations on pro-gun social media pages and forums, some gun rights supporters have been pushing back against “boogaloo” talk or comments about attacking law enforcement officers sent to confiscate guns. Other second amendment activists have publicly confronted conspiracy theories and misinformation. In December, Edwards, the former NRA TV host, devoted a post on his pro-gun site, Bearing Arms, to debunking false claims about Virginia.

Other choices are less likely to de-escalate tensions. In early January, the NRA paid for multiple billboards around Richmond that warned: “The Northam/Bloomberg Gun Confiscation Plan Starts Jan. 8”.

Winkler, the gun law expert, said he believed responsibility would ultimately come back to the NRA if the tensions in Virginia did spark any violence.

For decades, the NRA has been pushing “overheated rhetoric about the second amendment protecting your right to rise up against the government”, he said. “This is the natural result.” your social media marketing partner