Smell of fear in Richmond
Y'all, it smelled like fear last Monday out there in Richmond, Virginia.
Scores of men — plus a handful of women — dressed up in battle rattle and draped themselves with assault weapons, long guns and handguns. They strapped hunting knives to their thighs, wore body armor and body cameras on their chests, shoulders and helmets.
To go to a rally. A peaceful rally. On city streets in a quiet state capitol on a holiday weekend.
That's a uniform of fear, right there.
But fear of what?
Fear of having to pass a background check if they want to buy a gun from a private individual?
Fear of not being able to buy more than one handgun every month?
Fear of not being able to carry an AR-15 across your chest to a county fair that doesn't want your weapon aboard the tilt-a-whirl?
Fear of not getting help taking a gun away from your suicidal son?
Because those are all the restrictions on guns that the Virginia House of Delegates passed last week. The outsized turnout, vigor and rancor in Richmond on Monday — thousands of demonstrators filled the capitol grounds and surrounding streets — is a reaction based on fear, not fact.
And the fear is all about a loss of power.
"It happened like that," a man dressed in full camo with a handgun strapped to his hip, told his friend, snapping his finger. "We were good for years, then the left took over and they're going to take our guns away. Virginia is the home of the NRA. They want to run them out, too."
Be honest, people. Most law-abiding, regular old Virginians could still have a weapon — many weapons, even — under the common-sense legislation that the new Democratic majority in Richmond is passing.
The annual rally supporting unregulated gun ownership in Virginia was huge this year, whipped up by a tweet from President Trump warning, "Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia. That's what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away. "
Besides thousands of people who went through security to adhere to the emergency order banning weapons on Capitol grounds, thousands more who decided they couldn't be without their weapons encircled the Capitol. Huge assault weapons strapped across chests and backs knocked against each other in the port-a-potty lines. Some walked in a masked phalanx, bookended by German shepherds.
One group pushed through crowds in a congo line of camo and Carhartt, holding on to each other as they muscled through a crush of people.
"Racist, white supremacists coming through," one leader of a line bellowed, laughing, like everyone should know he really isn't racist.
The fears that the demonstration would turn into another Charlottesville were unfounded. Last week, the FBI arrested three men suspected of being members of a neo-Nazi hate group who stockpiled weapons and allegedly discussed sparking a race war at the Richmond rally.
Counterdemonstrators were urged by their leaders to avoid the rally. The Moms (who) Demand Action — the group that worked hard to help flip the state's legislature from red to blue — didn't show up with their red shirts and signs. The families of people killed in massacres avoided the scene. The rowdies who like to clash with everyone Netflixed and chilled. That helped keep the peace.
But it also meant there were no counter-protesters there to explain that requiring safety checks that still make owning a gun easier than driving a car are not a wholesale assault on the Second Amendment.
Billy Byrd, 55, said he doesn't really mind the background check. He's a retired police officer who lives in Williamsburg. But he said he wants to have weapons to protect his family. "I called the cops the other day and it took them 30 minutes to get there. In 30 minutes, my whole family could've been killed."
Did he call police because someone was trying to kill his whole family?
"No, someone was there taking pictures of the inside of my son's car," he said. "The VIN number."
Tim, (who feared giving me his last name), is a 47-year-old IT guy from North Carolina who owns "more (weapons) than I'm comfortable telling you." He also didn't really have a problem with the idea of background checks. But it's the principal of any kind of legislation or regulation he opposes. And fears.
"Criminals will have guns," he said.
All the men I talked to were also solidly opposed to red-flag laws, which allow a concerned family member or police to ask for the temporary removal of weapons from someone who may be dangerous to themselves or others.
"I can just tell the cops that a guy I hate is dangerous and they'll go take all his guns. It can happen to me," one guy told me.
Nope. That may be what he fears, but the red-flag law requires a state court to be petitioned and a judge to weigh in on whether taking the gun is appropriate.
Let me spell it out. The people who lobby for red-flag laws are usually those who lost a loved one to suicide. Only 30% of Virginia gun deaths are homicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The much larger number — 67% of all gun deaths in the state — are suicides.
The suicide-by-gun rate — about two a day in Virginia — takes primarily rural, white males over the age of 45, according to numbers complied by America's Health Rankings. And veterans are 1.5 times more likely to take their lives in Virginia.
That almost perfectly describes the demographic at the gun rally in Richmond.
Think about it, guys. The biggest thing you have to fear, when it comes to guns, is yourselves, actually. It would be pretty brave to talk about that.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team.
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