Earlier this week more than twenty thousand people, many of them armed, converged on Richmond, Virginia, to protest legislative efforts meant to reduce gun violence. Those efforts include a one-per-month cap on handgun purchases; universal background checks; and limits on firearm possession in public spaces, to be determined by local governments. The Virginia General Assembly is expected to pass those measures, which polls suggest are popular with Virginia residents. In Richmond, the state capital, the number of shootings reported last year rose by 65 percent; the number of homicides, most of which were gun-related, rose, too.
That Monday was a “lobby day,” during which state residents were encouraged to petition their elected officials. But for many Virginians it was supplanted by the gun-rights rally, whose cheerleaders included anti-government and white-supremacist organizations. Citing credible threats, Virginia governor Ralph Northam temporarily banned firearms from the capitol. In the days ahead of the rally, the FBI arrested men who belong to white-supremacist organizations, and who, according to one FBI spokesman, might “potentially conduct violent acts down in Richmond.”
The specter of violence shaped the day. One Democratic lawmaker declined to attend the scheduled lobbying day at the capitol. He had received multiple threats after proposing a bill that would enable state and local government employees to strike. Some opponents of the bill had incorrectly claimed it would be used “to fire law enforcement officers in ‘Second Amendment sanctuary’ counties who decline to enforce new gun laws,” according to the Prince William Times, a local newspaper. (Coverage of the bill, including a December op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, lacked necessary context, the Times noted; law enforcement “have been banned from striking in Virginia for over 50 years.”)
Another Democratic representative disguised herself in order to travel safely to the capitol; a Richmond reporter said the legislator “was afraid of being recognized and shot.” A group of students who also planned to lobby lawmakers spent the night before in the offices of two state representatives. The Virginia Center for Public Safety, a nonprofit that works to reduce gun violence, canceled its annual memorial vigil for victims of gun violence.
The day came and went; there was no Civil War, no second Charlottesville. In the absence of actual physical violence, however, many national news outlets ultimately proclaimed the day to be one of peace.
“Pro-gun rally by thousands in Virginia ends peacefully,” read the headline of a twelve-hundred-word Associated Press story, which ran on the front pages of several local newspapers throughout the state. Numerous national outlets echoed the sentiment. The rally, according to Vice, was “ultimately peaceful” and “went off without a hitch.” One CNN story, headlined “Virginia gun-rights rally concludes peacefully despite earlier fears of extremist violence,” provided a tidy formula for interpreting the day: an absence of reported physical violence means a tranquil event.
Such proclamations were ripe for selective use by conservative media. “Even the liberal hacks over at CNN reported that the rally ‘concluded peacefully,’ ” wrote a Media Research Center contributor who then attributed a lack of physical violence to the presence of guns. At Fox News, Dan Gainor, another MRC contributor, painted an idyllic scene, sullied only by what he called “media lunacy.”
Superficial coverage obscured many of the rally’s effects, including its potential to chill civic engagement. “Everyone’s been saying, ‘Don’t go outside—it’s not worth it,’ ” a local college student told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Virginia journalists better acquainted with the state’s laws spotted numerous violations. National outlets hardly took the time to mention the local rise in shootings, or the pre-legislation surge in firearm purchases. With the streets largely cleared of contrary viewpoints, reporters sopped up simplistic talking points from pro-gun ralliers, then effectively congratulated them for not killing anyone. They then constructed a vague notion of peace—one uncomplicated by trauma or intimidation—and gawked at it.
The rally, wrote Virginia-based journalist Jonathan Katz, “was not so much about guns as a signal of who has, and who can be entrusted to wield, power.” He continued:
The absence of overt white-supremacist symbols—and media-bait reminders of term-limited Virginia Gov. Northam’s own racist scandal—was a victory of messaging. The carnival-like atmosphere, punctuated by friendly “militias” greeting each other in the streets (“You’re all kings. You’re all fucking kings,” one armed group yelled at the other shorts-wearing militia pictured up top), was to be read as proof of the protesters’ law-abiding natures. But it was all wrapped in a muffled threat.
“It went really smoothly,” one demonstrator told The Trace. “I think it’s going to look really great for our movement.”