So it went Monday at the Virginia General Assembly, where a holiday to recognize the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. — the civil rights icon slain by an assassin’s bullet — has in recent years become an open-air debate about gun rights and gun violence. It coincides with “Lobby Day,” when residents are encouraged to visit their lawmakers. Later in the day, gun-control advocates held a rally of their own.
Some of the heat around the guns issue has been defused in recent years because Virginia has had a divided government. No bill will become law unless it meets the approval of both the Democratic legislature and Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. But with Democrats winning a majority in the House last fall and preserving their majority in the Senate, the number of gun control bills being introduced has increased — including measures to ban assault-style weapons and prohibit firearms in mental health facilities and restaurants that serve alcohol.
And Youngkin adds a layer of uncertainty. Though deeply conservative, he has dialed back the gun rights rhetoric since winning his party’s gubernatorial nomination, never filled out the NRA’s candidate survey and has faced little test of his position on gun-related legislation.
“We have no reason to think that he would support any of the gun-control bills,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun advocacy group. But is Van Cleave confident Youngkin would not compromise? “Reasonably so. I mean, we don’t know for sure, but … I would rather work to stop these bills before they even get to his desk, quite frankly,” he said.
Youngkin’s office has said only that the governor will review any legislation that comes to his desk.
Van Cleave’s group assembled a few hundred gun rights advocates Monday on a frigid Capitol Square — with a secure bus parked nearby to stash their weapons. Firearms have been prohibited in the square since 2021, a year after thousands of gun rights advocates from around the country swamped downtown Richmond with a massive protest against gun control.
The Second Amendment “is the right which protects all the other rights. And that’s why we cannot compromise, not even a little bit. Not even a little gun-control light,” Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America, said at the rally. Bundled-up supporters wearing orange “Guns Save Lives” stickers joined him in chanting the key lines of the Second Amendment: “shall not be infringed.”
One held a sign that read, “Only criminals and fools want gun free zones!” Another: “Genocide begins with gun control.” And: “Close the border!”
At least two lawmakers addressed the group, including Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper), who has introduced a bill to allow “constitutional carry,” or the right for any lawful firearm owner to carry a concealed gun without a special permit. It has little prospect of success in the Democratic-controlled House.
Freitas told supporters that the issue of gun rights “is not about hunting. It’s not about gun collecting.” Instead, he said, gun ownership is a right that protects against government overreach. “I’m going to say the quiet part out loud: In the United States, we have a proud tradition of civil disobedience when necessary. We’re about to celebrate some of that civil disobedience today on Martin Luther King Day.”
A few hours later, a couple hundred gun-control activists gathered at the Bell Tower in the afternoon as snow began falling, including two people touched by mass shootings on Virginia college campuses 15 years apart.
Elizabeth Paul of Fairfax County, in her fourth year at the University of Virginia, told the crowd how she’d huddled for 14 hours in the school’s library in November 2022, as police searched for the shooter who killed three football players on campus.
Leading the program was Lori Haas, wearing a maroon-and-orange scarf to symbolize Virginia Tech, where her daughter was one of 17 people wounded in 2007 by a mass shooter who killed 33 others before killing himself.
“You’re not safe in college. You’re not safe in Walmart. You’re not safe in the supermarket. You’re not safe anywhere,” said the Rev. Emanuel Harris, pastor of Jerusalem Baptist Church in Goochland County, who said he lost a cousin to gun violence just a month ago. “And yes, prayer is always good. But we need laws to change. And most of all, we need people to change.”
Harris went on from there to say that gun rights activists, by gathering with guns “on their hips” every year on a holiday honoring “a leader who was gunned down,” were engaging in “another act of intimidation.”
House Speaker Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) told the crowd that lots of people offer “nice, flowery words” about King on the holiday to “co-opt his memory. … There is no honor in appropriating his memory for nefarious goals. So often his words are used by politicians … who stand in direct opposition to his beliefs or refused to take on the mantle of leadership toward racial inequality or toward income inequality or toward making sure our communities are safer.”
“There are those that would tell us that more guns make us more safe,” Scott continued. “But tell those families just last week who lost loved ones in mass violence — I don’t have to tell you where it happened because we know it happens every week in America. We know that we are making it normal that this scourge of gun violence happens every single week. We can do better.”