Virginia-based gun control activist Catherine Koebel is intimately familiar with the reign of terror that the state’s pro-gun forces attempt to maintain through threats and intimidation, despite the fact that a strong majority of Virginia residents support gun reforms.
Koebel, who grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia, and has been involved in gun control organizing in the state since the Virginia Tech shooting left 33 people dead in 2007, said she has faced vicious harassment and death threats for her gun control organizing and described the treatment she and other gun control activists face from pro-gun advocates to be “very much like domestic violence.”
As a result of this threatening environment, she says, many gun control supporters in the state have curtailed what they advocate for based on their fear that the constant implicit threat of violence they face from pro-gun advocates could escalate into explicit violence. Meanwhile, pro-gun advocates continue to hold on to a false sense of entitlement to power, despite the fact that most Virginia residents disagree with them.
It is this already hostile landscape that has flared into a state of emergency in the lead-up to the gun rights rally planned for Monday, January 20, at the state capitol in Richmond.
Tensions over the upcoming lobby day escalated last week when Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrested three men with connections to a neo-Nazi hate group and access to assault weapons who were planning to attend the event. Last Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam, responding to credible threat intelligence, declared state of emergency, banning firearms from the entirety of the Capitol grounds.
Along with the Oath Keepers, a number of extremists and militia groups, including the Three Percenters and members of the Light Foot Militia, have publicly announced that they will be at Lobby Day on Monday. So has Infowars founder and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who also invited white nationalist Richard B. Spencer. On online forums like 4chan’s /pol/ and the social networking site Gab, some users have circulated inflammatory rhetoric about using the event to launch a race war.
Koebel fears the mix of people planning to lobby in the capitol on Monday could provoke a volatile ignition in a scenario where pro-gun advocates have gotten increasingly desperate about their waning power and legitimacy.
Pro-gun advocates have dominated state politics from a position of minority rule, with legislative gerrymandering preserving their power, even as the state’s demographics have changed and its electoral politics have trended blue for nearly a decade. And as conservative success in statewide elections has waned, the only power that they’ve retained has been that of refusal: blocking any legislative change at all. Their retrenchment has only eroded their authority, even as the Democratic majority in the House of Delegates has come to reflect the state’s real diversity.
Multiple polls released in December revealed that over 80 percent of Virginians, like Americans nationwide, support background checks on all gun sales; more than 70 percent support red flag laws. All of this is in line with national attitudes, and in fact, the majority of Americans have supported stricter firearms legislation in greater and lesser proportions for over eighty years: Around the time of the passage of the Federal Firearms Act in 1938, a Gallup poll found that 84 percent of Americans supported handgun permitting.
For many years pro-gun groups have used Martin Luther King Day as an informal lobbying day in Richmond — it’s near the beginning of the legislative session and most people have the day off of work — and members of the Virginia Citizens’ Defense League (a pro-Second Amendment nonprofit known to be more conservative than the National Rifle Association) have attended since 2002. It has been largely uneventful, even though members have openly carried guns.
But this year, now that Democrats have statewide control of the legislature and executive branch and have passed a package of modest reforms involving background checks, purchase limits and a weapons ban inside the statehouse, the VCDL and its leadership have ratcheted up the stakes and plan to bus thousands of people in from all over the state.
VCDL president Philip Van Cleave has sought to distance his group from the far right by insisting in a public statement, “Lobby Day is NOT about statues, flags, racism, sexism, or anything other than protecting the right to keep and bear arms for ALL law-abiding citizens.”
In the same statement, he made the absurd claim that Virginia Democrats may have “actually invited violent groups to attend for the purpose of disrupting our peaceful assembly,” amplifying false flag rhetoric that has been floating around online for several weeks.
Even as he has made a show of saying that his group cannot control who attends the protest, he has in fact openly encouraged the attendance of militia groups like the Oath Keepers, which is identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist hate group. The idea that the VCDL has simply lost control of its event is too simplistic; Van Cleave calls himself an extremist while rejecting the word’s most serious implications. This summer, he wrote to a Virginia newspaper, “There is 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!”
Koebel is familiar with Van Cleave and his rhetoric. Were Van Cleave serious about meaningful legislative action, she says, he wouldn’t have encouraged people to come from out of state. Nor does encouraging members to come heavily armed achieve anything, she says, if the point of Lobby Day is to be able to get inside the building and talk with legislators. She points out that the group is driving away the very people it claims to want to talk to; Governor Northam has asked non-essential personnel to stay home. By comparison, when the National Rifle Association held its own Lobby Day last week, its members seemed to have no problem following the state’s recent ban on firearms inside the capitol building.
The chaos now anticipated on Lobby Day is symptomatic of tensions that have been building for years under the state’s minority conservative control. Now, extremist forces are working to manipulate a pro-gun contingent already animated by a sense of being under siege. For Koebel and many of her neighbors in Richmond, it feels like their community is staring down the barrel of a gun.