The odds of political violence in Virginia just went up

If you want to see first-hand how America could conceivably slip back into the kind of political violence we saw in the 1970’s, then you should take a look at what’s currently unfolding in Virginia. It’s one of the best case studies in recent years of how social-media-fueled rumors, changing demographics, the growing urban/rural divide, and fears of political unrest on both sides can keep spiraling in the wrong direction despite efforts to de-escalate.

To be clear: The odds of the country’s current culture wars going hot are still extremely low. But thanks to a “public safety” move originally intended to tone down a long-simmering standoff between gun rights groups and a newly elected Democratic Virginia legislature, those odds got a solid boost.

On Wednesday, word got out that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam will announce plans to use his emergency powers to ban guns at a gun rights protest next week at the state capitol, in reaction to the increasingly dire rhetoric from pro-gun groups over a slate of new gun control laws proposed by the state’s new Democratic legislature.

Northam is expected to announce a temporary ban on all guns in the Capitol Square, where the Lobby Day protests will take place, citing the violence in Charlottesville as a rationale for the measure. But I’ve been following the protests closely on gun blogs and gun forums (I’ve covered the gun industry for years for both gun industry press and mainstream media), and I’m deeply concerned that Northam’s move will have the exact opposite effect. I think the odds of violence on Monday, or soon thereafter, just went way up.

If you’re not familiar with what’s happening in Virginia right now, here are two good backgrounders on the planned protests, and all the “civil war” rhetoric that has surrounded them:

Carrying long guns openly at the protest was already illegal, so many of those planning to attend (estimates range from tens of thousands to over one hundred thousand) have been planning to concealed carry, judging by the talk on the gun-related Facebook pages, reddits, and forums I follow. But there are also many others (it’s difficult to know how many) who have announced plans to open carry in defiance of the law. Some of these are from militia groups, and a few are even from out-of-state. They’re planning to show up in full “battle rattle,” in some instances with their faces covered (a felony in VA), as an act of civil disobedience to the existing gun laws.

I’ve seen this set of images circulating in multiple venues, for instance:

This could have come from a Russian disinfo campaign, but I’m not sure it matters at this point

These more hardcore activists that Northam is worried about will likely have two reactions to Northam’s latest move:

  1. Show up armed, anyway, and risk (or even provoke) a violent confrontation with the police
  2. Decide there’s no point in non-violent resistance, now, and begin preparing in earnest for imminent violent resistance

Some number of the activists who were planning to show up carrying concealed may also end up having one or both of the above reactions, and join the ranks of the further radicalized.

The governor’s use of his emergency powers against the pro-gun protestors also powerfully reinforces a very dangerous strand of disinformation that has been circulating in the run-up to this event, and has been inflaming some activists even as prominent pro-gun personalities have worked to debunk these rumors and defuse the conflict: the rumors that Northam will send in the National Guard to confiscate Virginians’ guns, or cut the power and network connectivity to Richmond so that he can take guns under cover of darkness and a communications blackout.

These dark fantasies around Northam’s alleged plans for draconian emergency measures, fantasies that have also surfaced in non-meme form as “news” reports on various websites, just got a massive boost from the Governor himself. Not great.

The Prepared will be a the gun industry’s main trade event next week — the 2020 SHOT Show in Las Vegas — so in addition to looking for the next batch of products to put through our review wringer, we’ll also be following the gun scene’s reaction whatever happens next week in Virginia. So watch this space for more.