- in In Pictures
Democrats swept to victory in Virginia last year after campaigning on stricter gun control laws. Weeks later, the backlash began.
The Culpeper County 2A Facebook group had five rules.
Rule one was “Get Busy – Follow the Action Plan and take the necessary steps to protect our rights. Sharing memes isn’t enough. We need coordinated action.”
Rule two was “Do Not Give Up – We’re in the fight of our lives. Act accordingly. Never surrender.”
At some point in late January the rules changed, and rule two became “No racism”. But the basic purpose remained: Culpeper County 2A (the 2A stands for Second Amendment) was founded with the aim of resisting gun control bills working their way through the Virginia state legislature.
Similar groups are springing up across the state. Dozens of towns and counties are passing resolutions declaring themselves “second amendment sanctuaries” – a term borrowed from the “sanctuary cities” immigration movement of several years ago. The resolutions vary from county to county, but they broadly declare support for the second amendment and paint proposed state gun control laws as invalid.
Democrats won control of the Virginia House and Senate in November for the first time in 24 years, and they immediately proposed a raft of gun control measures from universal background checks to restrictions on high capacity magazines. The bills came as no surprise – the Democrats had campaigned heavily on gun control, backed by funding from activist groups which comprehensively outspent the National Rifle Association in its home state. Democratic candidates were responding to a growing clamour for gun control that began with the mass shooting of 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 and was amplified last year when a municipal worker slaughtered 12 people in Virginia Beach. When they won, the Democrats turned their proposals into bills and promised a wave of progressive legislation. Weeks later, the backlash began.
Nearly 200 Virginia municipalities have now passed second amendment sanctuary resolutions, turning the old Confederate capital – whose motto is “Don’t Tread on Me” – into a kind of frontline once again. The driving force behind the resolution in Culpeper County was Patrick Heelen, a local attorney who founded the Culpeper County 2A group and petitioned the county Board of Supervisors to hold a vote.
Heelen is a barrel-chested man, a little over six feet, who wears cowboy boots and has a long beard befitting his role as a captain in local Civil War battle re-enactments. He prefers the term “constitutional county” to second amendment sanctuary, because he believes the founding fathers intended to grant absolute gun rights to the population, in perpetuity.
“All eyes are on Virginia,” he told me. “America is watching what we do, how we conduct ourselves. America is watching to what extent we will be pushed around. America is watching to see if we are going to take a stand.”
I asked Heelen how far he and his fellow Culpeper County 2A members would go to defend their guns. “We are committed,” he said.
At the first Board of Supervisors meeting in Culpeper, on a cold Tuesday morning in December, so many people came that the 180-capacity room overflowed into the hallway and clear into the parking lot. This was an unusual state of affairs for the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors.
“I’ve been on the board for 38 years and this was the biggest crowd I ever saw,” Bill Chase, the vice chairman, said afterwards. “It is the most fired up issue I’ve seen in all my years.”
Many at the meeting wore bright orange stickers reading “Guns save lives”, which are becoming familiar in parts of Virginia. Chase introduced the resolution, to a round of applause, and invited Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins to speak. Jenkins – the most senior officer in the county – quoted the constitution and the founding father of Virginia, Richard Henry Lee, and called the idea of restricting ownership of high-capacity 15-round magazines “insane”. He told the crowd that it wasn’t in fact the second amendment that gave gun rights to citizens, but God.
Jenkins also made an unexpected announcement that put Culpeper on the map in the sanctuaries movement: he said he would deputise anyone in the county who wanted, affording them the same broad gun rights as a sheriff’s deputy and allowing them to ignore new gun laws.
I met Jenkins later at the Culpeper County Sheriff’s office. “My statement was simply that I would choose to swear in hundreds or even thousands of our citizens as deputy sheriffs if need be, to allow them to possess weapons and push back on that overreach by our government,” he said.
He pointed out that Virginia already has lots of laws on the books that are not enforced. “We have laws against spitting on a public surface or sidewalk,” he said. “I cannot recall an officer enforcing that in the time I’ve been working.”
Some would argue that the gun control bills passing through the state legislature deal with more serious issues, like reducing access to the kinds of high-powered rifles that have been used to devastating effect in mass shootings, or making it easier to temporarily remove guns from those experiencing a mental health crisis.
But Sheriff Jenkins indicated that, were the bills to pass into law in the coming weeks, they would sit somewhere around spitting on a public surface in his list of priorities. “I guess if there are no other more important issues to focus on, maybe officers will focus on them,” he said.
After Sheriff Jenkins had finished speaking at the Board of Supervisors meeting and a handful of residents had spoken in support of the resolution, the board adjourned ahead of a second meeting that night. At the evening meeting, which was similarly packed with supporters, one person stood to speak against the resolution.
As a young, sharply-dressed black man, Uzziah Harris stood out in several ways. He told the crowd the context of the Second Amendment was “clear in that it allowed for the keeping and bearing of arms in order to maintain a militia in times of emergency”.
“It never stated or specified as to how many or what type of firearm and it never said anything about lack of restriction regardless of mental or emotional capacity,” he said. “There currently isn’t a national emergency, nor does the military need supplements.”
Harris, a middle school English teacher, went on to cite cigarettes, alcohol, cannabis, cars and the internet as items generally and acceptably regulated. “So what is wrong with regulation of firearms?” he said.
At the end of the meeting, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve the resolution.
Harris has a detailed knowledge of parts of the constitution and can recite the second amendment, parsing its meaning as he goes. Like others in Culpeper opposed to this movement, he supports the second amendment. “Wholeheartedly,” he said.
“But there are limits that can be placed and should be placed on gun ownership. We should have background checks, we should make sure that people are have the mental capacity to own guns. Hunting is one thing, protection of your families is another – but this influx of military weaponry, unlimited cartridges and rounds, how useful is that for hunting? How necessary is that for protection of your families?”
The proponents of the sanctuary movement are quick to dismiss hunting and family protection as reasons for defending gun rights, though. They are abundantly clear: the right to bear arms is about defence against a “tyrannical government” – a notion that dates back to the founding fathers.
“The thing is,” Harris said, “it doesn’t matter what you have in your stockpile, what chance do you have against the US military now? What chance do you have against drones?”
The Saturday after the Board of Supervisors meeting, Culpeper County 2A and the local Republican Committee staged a rally at Culpeper’s Yowell Meadow Park, where local militia had mustered in 1770 to fight the British. About 500 Second Amendment supporters stood under grey skies and drizzle to hear Sheriff Jenkins and others speak about the sanctuary movement.
The gathering drew an impressive crowd for such a miserable day, but it was really only a warm up for a much bigger event. Jenkins, Heelen, and the other sanctuary supporters were all looking a week ahead to the annual Lobby Day rally in the state capital of Richmond, where as many as 50,000 people were expected to gather in the streets – many heavily armed – to protest against the Democratic gun control bills.
The rally was set for Monday 20 January. Over the weekend, people flooded into Virginia from nearby states and from as far away as Texas and California. President Trump weighed in on Twitter on Saturday, telling the nation: “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away.”
On the Sunday night before the rally, several state militia groups gathered for dinner at a community hall in a rural suburb about 30 miles outside of Richmond. Christian Yingling, the commander of the Pennsylvania Lightfoot Militia, helped organise the dinner. “We reached out to get a bunch of good reputable militias together to come stand with the people of Virginia,” he said.
Inside the community hall the crowd was mostly male and nearly entirely white. There were small arms holstered to people’s hips and tucked in the waistbands of jeans, and glasses of bullets as table decorations. There was a cross section of right and left-wing groups there – the Pennsylvania and South Carolina Lightfoot Militias sat alongside members of the John Brown Gun Club and a representative from the local Antifa chapter, which had announced days before that it would march on Monday alongside the pro-gun people. Unlike the deadly rally in nearby Charlottesville two years earlier, the politics of the Lobby Day rally were not right versus left.
The Virginia Citizens Defence League – a right-wing, pro-gun lobby group that organised the rally – led the meeting. The membership of the VCDL tripled in the wake of the Democratic midterm win, according to its president Philip Van Cleave – swelling from 8,000 to 24,000 members, and the group is now the driving force behind the Virginia sanctuaries movement. It had printed hundreds of large placards displaying a map of places that had passed resolutions – “91 counties / 12 cities / 22 towns”.
Greg Trojan, one of the founders of the VCDL, gave a speech singling out Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and current Democratic presidential candidate, for funding gun control campaigns and candidates in the state. Bloomberg and George Soros – the Jewish financier who has become a fixture of right-wing conspiracy theories – came up several times. There is a perception that big-money Democrat donors bought the election and are forcing gun control on a state that doesn’t want it – allowing a dense urban population to dictate the law to the state’s rural conservative heartlands. VCDL promotional videos warn that Democrat-driven immigration is changing Virginia’s culture.