Inside the Virginia pro-gun rally, I saw a perfect reflection of modern America

Chris Riotta
Reuters

Two signs were hanging at the entrance of the Sam Miller oyster bar in Richmond, Virginia as thousands of guns rights activists descended on the state capitol for a major demonstration. One, placed above a rainbow flag, read: “Everyone is welcome here.” The other, featuring a cartoon handgun that had been struck through in a bold, red circle, stated: “No firearms allowed on premises.” Both felt necessary.

Approaching the demonstration, the first chants I heard were attacks against media personnel as they set up television shots on a patch of grass near the capitol grounds, where Virginia Governor Ralph Northam had declared a state of emergency. Armed activists screamed: “Fake news! Fake news!” I quickly tucked away my reporting gear as I got closer to the crowd. It felt like a justified precaution, being as I was unarmed in a sea of semi-automatic weapons attached to unsympathetic owners.

Nevertheless, for the most part, I found folks were happy to speak with reporters like myself, who had come from all over the country to document a potentially historic day.

The Virginia state legislature — which, for the first time in nearly 25 years, has been taken over by the Democratic Party — just passed a series of “controversial” gun laws. In reality, the more contentious bills were killed before they ever came up for a vote in the Virginia Senate, while three bills typically considered “common sense gun reforms” were passed. Those bills — SB70, SB 69 and SB 35, to give them their official categorizations — establish statewide mandatory background checks, limit the purchasing of firearms to once a month, and provide local governments the ability to ban firearms from public events, respectively. But none of that mattered by Monday, when demonstrators were already riled up by what they described as a “declaration of war against law-abiding gun owners.”

A lot of the activists who arrived to demonstrate in opposition to gun control on Martin Luther King Jr Day were angry — some of them would say “pissed off” — and weren’t afraid to show it. I was happy to discuss their cause with those who agreed to speak civilly with me — but not everyone was keen for a chat.

As I snapped photos of a line of armed demonstrators, I could hear a group of men with thick southern accents behind me.

“Another journalist,” one said.

“Fake news f****t,” his buddy replied.

It wasn’t the only time I heard the phrase “fake news f****t” directed at me: As I walked past the state’s court of appeals, which faces the capitol grounds, an older man smoking a cigar said it as well. I forgot I had taken out my reporters' notepad — a thin, blue pad that almost anyone would assume belongs to a journalist — a while earlier to interview a Republican running for US Senate in Virginia against Democratic incumbent Mark Warner.

I slipped the notepad back into my jacket, feeling a sense of both dread and shame. I couldn’t be sure if that shame came from being gay, or a being a journalist — or a combination of them both. Regardless, I felt too seen for my own good, and aimed to slip back into obscurity. As a cisgender white male, I knew I was privileged to be able to do just that at an event like this, which was dominated by cisgender, straight white folks: Folks who look like me on the surface.

Gun control activists who come from all walks of life expressed concern to me about attending the events ahead of time, with many of them saying they would stay away out of fear of a possible clash with the heavily armed demonstrators at Virginia’s capitol.

Thomas Freeman, one gun control activist I spoke to at the event, told me: “Traditionally on this day a lot of folks come to lobby, including guns rights activists, but [today] they don’t feel safe."

In many ways, the demonstrations perfectly reflected modern America: We are one of the most complicated and divided countries in the world right now, and more so over gun rights than any other issue. From the nationwide gun control protests in the wake of the Parkland school shootings to the Black Lives Matter marches and the Lobby Day demonstrations held on Monday in Virginia, it’s clear that our ideological views on guns and their place in society run the gamut. Those who take to the streets don’t always have the answers — but they certainly want to be heard.

While Lobby Day proved to be a mostly peaceful event, the rally could have erupted into a second Charlottesville at any given moment. And yet thousands of Americans were provided the space and ability to practice their First and Second Amendment rights. There is so much work to be done until we’re all given a seat at the table and figure out how to move forward as a united front. But sometimes, in the thick of such difficult challenges, it’s helpful to remember that America has always been an idea, and remains something to fight and strive for.

Virginia will soon implement tougher gun restrictions as the law of the land. Perhaps gun owners will continue to protest in opposition to those measures, and, in some cases, they may very well be successful in their fight. The other side will undoubtedly continue to fight as well. At the end of it all, I cling to hope: Hope that we will find a common middle ground, where each citizen is given the space, freedom and safety to voice their own opinions without fear of retribution. That is, after all, the American dream.