By Evie King
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — People on both sides of the gun control debate rallied at the Capitol on Monday to advocate for their stances on firearms in Virginia.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League held a Second Amendment rally at the Bell Tower at Capitol Square in the morning. The Virginia Center for Public Safety followed with an afternoon vigil that honored lives lost to gun violence.
Virginia Citizens Defense League Rally
An hour before the Capitol Bell struck noon, over 50 VCDL members congregated, clad in winter coats and wearing hunter-orange stickers that read “Guns save lives.” Demonstrators gathered to listen to speeches from gun rights activists and legislators sympathetic to their cause, including Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, and Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun.
The Virginia state and American flags blew in the frigid wind as VCDL President Philip Van Cleave introduced the speakers.
“I don’t think there’s been a year in the legislature that I have not introduced a gun bill,” said Black, who plans to retire from the General Assembly at the end of the year.
Decrying Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed gun control measures as “California-style restrictions,” Black expressed his support of VCDL advocacy efforts.
“Thanks to … all of you and the work that you’re doing and the pressure that you put on the legislators, we are killing those bills and killing them fast,” Black said.
Van Cleave said he hopes the General Assembly passes SB 1024, sponsored by Black. It would legalize concealed weapons in places of worship in Virginia. A Senate committee approved the bill Monday on a 7-6 party-line vote.
Nikki Goeser addressed the crowd and advocated for the right to bear arms in the spirit of self-defense. Her husband was murdered in 2009 at a restaurant in Tennessee, where it is illegal to carry a firearm in an establishment that serves alcohol.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t ask myself, what I could have done if I had my weapon,” Goeser said.
Kristi Horton said self-defense was also her primary reason for showing up to the rally. As a victim of sexual assault and a former law enforcement employee, Horton said she looks to legislators to protect her right to bear arms.
“The result of my work help put people away in jail … sadly, I still get death threats … to me, anything that makes it more difficult for me to obtain a firearm to defend myself hurts me, because there are people who really do want to hurt me,” Horton said.
A group of teachers, mothers and their children marched near the gun rights advocates and protested the VCDL meeting, specifically the group’s president, Van Cleave. He endorsed arming kindergartners with stuffed animal decorated guns in a controversial video orchestrated by actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.
Alsuin Preis led the group and called Van Cleave’s ideas about arming children “insane” and “ludicrous.” Preis said the fear that motivates members of the VCDL is unfounded.
“It’s all based on a lie … It’s a fake premise that we’re all under attack. We’re not. There needs to be sensible gun laws. There needs to be common-sense gun laws,” Preis said.
The VCDL rally ended with a coordinated group cheer of “guns save lives,” which Second Amendment supporters yelled upward toward the sky as the bell tolled noon.
Gun Violence Vigil
Two hours later, the Bell Tower courtyard repopulated with a noticeably different crowd. Where the predominately white male, gun rights activists previously stood, a diverse crowd of families, students and faith leaders gathered to honor the more than 1,000 Virginians lost to gun violence in 2017.
Among them was Shana Turner, who traveled to the vigil from Hampton Roads in honor of her 25-year-old son. Turner held a poster in one hand and a framed picture of her son Shaquille in the other. She said her son’s murder inspired her advocacy. According to police reports, Shaquille Turner was killed by a co-worker in a murder-suicide on Dec. 12, 2017.
“I’m not taking away anyone’s Second Amendment, but let’s be clear, people that have guns in their home aren’t actually using them to protect themselves. They’re using it for suicide [or for] domestic violence,” Turner said.
Prayers from three local faith leaders were followed by speeches from prominent Democratic politicians. Attorney General Mark Herring said the Virginia legislature is not doing everything it could to make sure gun violence is stopped, “Not with a week like last week.”
More than a dozen gun control bills were killed in committee last week on party-line votes by the Republican majority. Among them was HB 1763, referred to as a “red-flag” bill that would allow law enforcement officers to ask a judge to take away and prohibit the purchase of firearms by any person who “poses a substantial risk of injury to himself or others.”
Aimed at preventing suicides and mass shootings, “red flag laws” have seen recent bipartisan support in other states such as Maryland and Florida.
Northam echoed the sentiments of the bright yellow stickers demonstrators wore on their jackets that read “background checks save lives.”
“Folks on the other side of the aisle continue to defeat what we know as common sense legislation to promote gun safety, things like universal background checks,” Northam said. “They’re more than willing to talk about how we make our streets and highways safer … but why can’t we have a dialogue about how we … as Virginians can address [gun control] issues.”
Northam said he is interested in having conversations with legislators on both sides of the aisle, “but if we can’t change people’s minds, we need to change their seats,” he said to a cheering crowd.
Northam celebrated the 2017 election results, which flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates from Republican to Democrat, and the 7th Congressional District victory in November by U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who attended the rally.
“We need to keep that energy going in 2019. … We will see you all out here next year, and we will have the majority in the House and Senate, and we will finally get things done for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Northam said.
“Change is coming once again,” musician Crys Matthews sang, accompanied by her acoustic guitar, as the gathering dispersed.