It was Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, but there were few references to the icon of nonviolence, who was killed by a sniper. Contrary to the beliefs of many at the gun rally, with their “Sic Semper Tyrannis” signs, guns often do not protect Americans from the worst of their government, but tend instead to be turned on the historically oppressed.
I saw no memorials to Philando Castile, the gun owner who was murdered by a police officer, or Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old whom a police officer shot while he played with a gun-shaped toy. In some of the self-styled vigilantes in attendance, I did see echoes of George Zimmerman, who killed the seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin while playing cop.
More than one person drew a parallel between the Lobby Day events and the Black Panthers’ armed demonstration on the steps of the California state legislature in 1967, an event that resulted in the Mulford Act, the open-carry ban approved by Ronald Reagan, who was then the governor. The gun-rights movement now uses the Mulford Act as an example of how gun-control laws are disproportionately applied to people of color—one of the few instances of structural inequality that the right will recognize.
In its attempts to revamp its image, the movement is now in the somewhat untenable position of claiming to stand for the right to black self-defense while also rallying alongside white nationalists. Without directly addressing the imbalances in power around gun ownership in the United States, the claim that the movement stands for all Americans against tyranny lacks credulity.
There’s another way to see what happened to the Panthers, which was that they were mistaken in thinking, as Joan Didion put it in “The White Album,” that “political power began at the end of the barrel of a gun.”
The rally ended at noon. By three in the afternoon, the armed groups had dissipated. As the light faded on the day, a small group of anti-gun protesters, fewer than a dozen in number and including the March for Our Lives youths, came to the capitol steps and held their annual Lobby Day prayer vigil, before a now-empty lawn.
After the vigil, I asked Lori Haas, the Virginia state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, whose daughter was injured in the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, what she had thought of the rally. “I saw a bunch of people from out of state come to chest-thump,” she said. “Guess what? They’re gone. I’ll be here tomorrow. I have an eight-thirty meeting.” On January 24th, seven bills to prevent gun violence passed out of committee. They will be voted on by the Virginia House of Representatives later this week.
– Emily Witt in A New Backlash to Gun Control Begins in Virginia