Liberals Panic About Peaceful Protest Reveals Real Motive

After a gun rights rally in Richmond came and went last week without the “violence, rioting, and insurrection” predicted by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Talia Lavin could not believe her eyes, and she urged the rest of us not to believe our eyes either. “It seems myopic at best to describe the Monday event as ‘peaceful,'” Lavin wrote in a GQ article about the rally, which attracted thousands of armed Second Amendment supporters energized by Northam’s gun control agenda.

Lavin’s reality-bending assessment reflects a Manichean attitude, all too common among gun control supporters, that casts sincere policy disagreements as a battle between good and evil. That attitude explains why so many activists, politicians and journalists found it easy to equate a gathering of civil libertarians, organized around the defense of constitutional rights, with an invasion by white supremacists determined to sow chaos and provoke a race war.

Explaining his executive order banning firearms from Richmond’s Capitol Square during an annual demonstration organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, Northam invoked the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, which featured explicit racism, clashes between protesters and counterprotesters and deadly vehicular violence. Northam said the VCDL rally, which had been held without violence for nearly two decades, this year justified a “state of emergency” because “credible intelligence gathered by Virginia’s law enforcement agencies” suggested it would attract militant racists bent on “storming the Capitol.”

Northam’s gun ban, which implicated the First Amendment as well as the Second given the obvious expressive value of bearing arms at a rally defending the right to do so, seemed blatantly illegal. A 2012 Virginia law that Northam himself supported as a state legislator bars the governor from using a state of emergency as an excuse to “prohibit the rights of the people to keep and bear arms,” including the “otherwise lawful” public possession of guns. The only exception is for restrictions “necessary to ensure public safety” in “an emergency shelter.”

The factual basis for Northam’s order was nearly as weak. The Associated Press reported that “Northam has grown increasingly concerned about numerous ominous-sounding postings on social media from forces outside Virginia,” but “the state does not have intelligence that the groups are planning a specific act of violence.”

The strongest evidence of incipient violence was the FBI’s Jan. 16 arrest of three neo-Nazi knuckleheads who had talked about attending the VCDL demonstration in the hope of triggering a “full-blown civil war.” Lavin averred that the men “had planned to open fire into the crowd” — not the smartest strategy given what she described as “a spectacular arsenal of weaponry” possessed by that crowd.

The press nevertheless did its best to make Northam’s nightmare seem plausible. The New York Times mentioned Gun Owners of America, a Virginia-based organization dedicated to defending the Second Amendment, in the same breath as the out-of-state “hate groups” that supposedly planned to turn the rally into a “boogaloo” — “an event that will accelerate the race war they have anticipated for decades.”

The Times also described VCDL President Philip Van Cleave as an “extremist,” based on this Goldwater-esque quote from a letter to the editor he wrote last July: “There’s nothing wrong with being extreme in the preservation of our civil rights. VCDL is proud to be categorized as an extremist organization, and we fully intend to continue being such!” Hence the print headline over the paper’s profile of Van Cleave: “Self-Described Extremist Calls for ‘Peaceful Event.'”

Northam predictably attributed the lack of violence at the rally to his prudent preparations. But while police, per his order, prevented the 6,000 or so protesters who entered Capitol Square from carrying firearms, many more — some 16,000, according to local authorities — participated from outside the perimeter, where guns were very much in evidence.

“Today showed that when people disagree, they can do so peacefully,” Northam said. When the subject is guns, unfortunately, they cannot do so without being tarred as brutal bigots.

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Jacob Sullum
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.