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How The Fight Over Guns Escalated In Virginia


Thousands of gun owners are expected to rally in Richmond, Va., tomorrow to protest restrictions proposed by Democrats, who now control the state's government. Security will be tight. Officials are worried the event will draw far-right extremists and become violent. From member station VPM, Ben Paviour looks at how the issue of guns in Virginia has escalated over the past year.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Tony Martin is used to being around guns. As a teenager in the Roanoke area, they were just a part of life.

TONY MARTIN: Pretty much everybody had a firearm, whether it was a shotgun or a .22 rifle.

PAVIOUR: In rural areas, Martin says students would carry guns in their car, so they could hunt after school.

MARTIN: And nobody got shot. Imagine that (laughter). It wasn't a safety issue.

PAVIOUR: Now Martin teaches gun safety classes and owns a gun shop called New American Arms in the suburbs of Richmond. Monday's rally is the talk of the store. Martin is planning on closing up shop and heading downtown.

MARTIN: I think, overwhelmingly, Virginia believes in freedom and believes in the right to be able to defend yourself and your family from harm.

PAVIOUR: Martin and other gun advocates see Virginia as a state that's friendly to firearms. It's home to the NRA. And for years, Republicans in the legislature have been a firewall against any gun control bills. Then in May, a shooter opened fire at the Virginia Beach municipal center, killing 12 people.


LUTHER ALLEN III: Now we need you right now to just show your glory in this place, oh, God.

PAVIOUR: At a ceremony the following day, Reverend Luther Allen III, local Baptist minister, grappled with the carnage of gun violence.

ALLEN: Children died at Sandy Hook. Children - and this nation did nothing. And that was a sign of our moral decline, of how low we have stooped.

PAVIOUR: Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat who ran on gun control, avoided the topic at the ceremony.


RALPH NORTHAM: Why do these tragedies happen? And I don't have an answer for that. But God does.

PAVIOUR: Days later, though, he called for a special legislative session on gun violence.


NORTHAM: I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers.

PAVIOUR: The July special session lasted just 90 minutes. Republicans said they needed more time to study the legislation and called Northam's move an election-year stunt. In their campaigns, Democrats drilled Republicans for delaying votes that they said could save lives. Polling showed gun policy was at the top of voters' minds ahead of November 5.


NORTHAM: ...That Virginia is officially blue. Congratulations.


PAVIOUR: That's when Democrats took the state legislature, the first time in over two decades. Northam said voters had spoken.


NORTHAM: We have to deal with common-sense gun legislation. So thank you for being with us to do that.


PAVIOUR: Within weeks of the election, some gun owners mobilized against those plans. Dozens of local governments passed symbolic resolutions declaring themselves so-called Second Amendment sanctuaries.

PHILIP VAN CLEAVE: They're saying, no. We're not doing it. We're not going to give up our guns.

PAVIOUR: Philip Van Cleave is president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which is organizing Monday's rally. Van Cleave is the state's most prominent gun activist. He's told supporters to stay calm and peaceful on Monday. In the same breath, Van Cleave says Democrats risk provoking civil war if they press for gun laws.

VAN CLEAVE: I pray they don't do that. But if it happens, it'll be the governor that drove us into it. This is up to him.

PAVIOUR: Democrats are already moving. The state Senate passed three gun control bills last week, including universal background checks. Advocates say it's long overdue. And Monday's gun rally won't slow them down. For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Paviour