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on January 20, 2020, thousands of protestors converged on Virginia’s state capitol in Richmond as the state’s new Democratic majority considers legislation that would enact sweeping gun control measures

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Virginia's Creeping Authoritarianism

The scene before our eyes resembled something from a disaster film. Roadblocks, fencing, sanitized police checkpoints, sniper’s nests, vehicles loaded with heavy-duty surveillance equipment darting through the streets as an armored vehicle called The Rook lurched onto the field. An armored track vehicle built on a Caterpillar chassis, The Rook is armed with a hydraulic breaching ram and gun portholes.

All these siege engines revolved around a Damoclean centerpiece: a great iron cage in which unarmed protesters would be contained. This scene was not lifted from the silver screen, however, but was the Virginia State Capitol on the eve of Lobby Day, an event in late January in which tens of thousands of law-abiding gun owners would rally for their right to keep and bear arms.

Even before the nationwide government crackdown in the wake of the COVID-19 virus, the unprecedented reaction of Virginia’s government against civilian protesters showcased the potential for authoritarianism to rear its head in America, a trend later confirmed by the repressive measures against coronavirus quarantine protesters taken by state governors such as Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer. The actions of Virginia, the Mother of Presidents, against its own disobedient citizens has told us something of what lies beneath the surface of our nation’s political future.

The first shot in Virginia’s battle, the latest phase of the culture war, was fired months before, when the Democratic Party took control of the Virginia General Assembly.

“I’m here to officially declare today, Nov. 5, 2019, that Virginia is officially blue,” Governor Ralph Northam triumphantly told a crowd of supporters. With his feet planted firmly in the loamy soil of political radicalism, Northam declared with a smile that he would set his hand against the Second Amendment, starting with red flag laws prohibiting undesirables from owning guns, and bump stock and magazine bans that would retroactively make felons of thousands. Seeing the smoke over Richmond, Virginians wasted no time constructing political firebreaks around their communities.

Tazewell County in rural western Virginia declared their locale to be a Second Amendment sanctuary and that every able-bodied Virginian constituted a militiaman. “Counties, not the state, determine what types of arms may be carried in their territory and by whom,” County Administrator Eric Young said. “So, we are ‘ordering’ the militia by making sure everyone can own a weapon.”

The county also put the weight of the purse behind the sword: any law enforcement agency in Tazewell that marches against gun owners risks their funding. Within a week, more governing bodies across the state followed Tazewell’s lead and adopted similar resolutions, to the ire of the progressive intelligentsia.

“There is no legal basis for localities in Virginia to choose the laws they observe, a regime that would define anarchy,” pouted The Washington Post’s editorial board in response to events in Tazewell County. This, from the same editorial board that has voiced support for immigration sanctuary cities that fly in the face of federal law.

“Leave our guns alone, don’t come after us,” was the message Philip Van Cleave wanted Virginia Democrats to hear. Van Cleave is president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL). He told his local news station that, in all his years of advocacy, he had never witnessed the kind of sound and fury with which Virginians were now mobilizing around him. Northam and the Democrats remained, however, undeterred and determined to tread on.

A new bill sailed into the Virginia legislature that would effectively outlaw the AR-15, America’s most ubiquitous semiautomatic, “assault-style” rifle, along with myriad other common semiautomatic pistols, rifles, and shotguns, with violators facing up to five years imprisonment. By late December, people noticed with some alarm that Virginia Democrats had allocated $250,000 for the Corrections Special Reserve Fund, in anticipation of the “increase in the operating cost of adult correctional facilities resulting from the enactment” of proposed gun control measures. Money earmarked to cover the cost of jailing disobedient Virginians, in other words.

By now, Northam was sensing the smoldering discontent at his feet, as more and more governing bodies, and, by extension, local law enforcement, declared that they would not comply. If locals wouldn’t provide the sinew he needed, perhaps the National Guard would.

“If we have constitutional laws on the books and law enforcement officers are not enforcing those laws on the books, then there are going to be some consequences,” Northam said.

While the governor didn’t throw light upon the meaning of “consequences,” his Democratic colleague from Virginia’s 4th Congressional District, Rep. Donald McEachin, certainly did. “The governor may have to nationalize the National Guard to enforce the law,” McEachin told Newsweek. “I don’t know how serious these counties are and how severe the violations of law will be, but that’s obviously an option he has.”

Serious enough that Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia sent a generous offer over the ramparts to his neighbors: “If you’re not truly happy where you are, we stand with open arms to take you from Virginia.” A bill was then introduced into the West Virginia legislature to allow the incorporation of dissident Virginia counties into their state.

The country roads were calling, but Democrats would have no talk of figurative or literal secession. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, issued an advisory opinion that local jurisdictions have no authority to ignore state statutes. Democratic Senator Dave Marsden was caught blabbing into a hot mic that gun rights advocates are “just like little kids.” This paternalistic talk belies the real, visceral hatred felt by Democrats for gun owners.

Recall failed presidential candidate “Beto” O’Rourke’s warning to those who would resist his proposed mandatory gun-buyback: “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” Like Northam, O’Rourke also spoke of “consequences.” Under O’Rourke’s regime, he explained with a great deal of euphemism, gun owners would receive “a visit by law enforcement to recover that firearm and to make sure that it is purchased, bought back, so that it cannot be potentially used against somebody else.”

Then there is, of course, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who warned against anyone dreaming of resisting Democratic disarmament. “The government has nukes,” Swalwell sniffed. “Too many of them. But they’re legit.” In New Hampshire, Joe Biden put it plainly on the campaign trail: “Those who say ‘the tree of liberty is watered with the blood of patriots’—a great line, well, guess what: The fact is, if you’re going to take on the government you need an F-15 with Hellfire Missiles. There is no way an AK-47 is going to take care of you.”

Virginia Democrats have been no less venomous. “If you think your AR-15 will do diddly against the full might and power of the United States military,” Virginia Democratic Delegate Mark Levine cautioned a Twitter user, “you need to talk to someone who has served there.”

Luckily for me, I found someone who “served there” and attended Lobby Day on the side of the citizens. “I was actually a member of the Virginia Guard for about 10 years,” a man who asked to be identified as “Reardon” told me as he prepared for the event. Though his background is in the military, Reardon now works as a government consultant with his finger on the political pulse of Virginia. While he does not share the outlook of Levine, Reardon believes that if at some point push comes to shove, there are elements within the Virginia Guard that wouldn’t think twice.

“I know the Virginia Guard and the officer corps,” Reardon said, “and I can tell you right now that within the top levels of the leadership, they’re going to do as their told.” He noted the careful wording of the Virginia Guard’s official statement in response to Northam’s cryptic threats: “We will not speculate about the possible use of the Virginia National Guard.” That statement, said Reardon, was unsurprising because it reflected the power dynamic of the adjutant general of Virginia and the governor—the governor appoints the Adjutant General, and the Virginia Guard’s chain of command includes the governor.

I asked Reardon what he made of the planning around the Capitol. “You see pictures of them putting up barricades, bringing in armored cars. I think they’re purposely exaggerating some of the threats because [Democrats] want things to escalate.” The psychology of an overt show of force impresses aggression, not diplomacy. Nevertheless, Second Amendment activists were resolved to keep calm and march on the Capitol.

The Democrats, nevertheless, doubled down—Northam declared a state of emergency ahead of Lobby Day. Included in that declaration was a ban of firearms from the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol complex, which stood conspicuously at odds with a clause in the state’s constitution that prohibits the banning of “the otherwise lawful possession, carrying, transportation, sale, or transfer of firearms” under a state of emergency declaration.

Similarly unconcerned with facts, the media, too, piled on against Virginians. “Reporters covering tomorrow’s white nationalist rally in Virginia,” NBC’s Ben Collins wrote on Twitter, “I’m absolutely begging you: Verify information before you send it out tomorrow, even if it’s a very sensational rumor you heard from a cop.” He deleted the tweet after it became clear that Lobby Day would not in fact be a neo-Nazi affair—the event came and went with little drama. Anywhere between 22,000 and 60,000 heavily armed people showed up for the event, carrying more firepower than your average American soldier, not infrequently wearing body armor over Hawaiian shirts. Many unarmed demonstrators happily walked into the iron cage—redubbed the “freedom cage”—under the watchful eyes of their armed allies and law enforcement.

“The giant has awoken,” John Crump, the Virginia state director for Gun Owners of America (GOA) told me. “What you saw on Lobby Day is people traveling for hours and giving up a day’s pay to fight for their rights,” Crump said. “We think gun owners in the Commonwealth know they can no longer sit on the sidelines.” The GOA and the VCDL filed for an emergency injunction to overturn the governor’s gun ban before Lobby Day. I asked Crump if Virginia has become the epicenter of an emboldened political current striving against the Second Amendment. “I think it is ‘ground zero’ for the gun confiscation movement,” he said. The events of the day, however, made it clear that Virginians wouldn’t go quietly into the night. “It might take time, but we will be able to roll back these Draconian gun laws through future elections and the courts.”

Lobby Day concluded with just one arrest reported. After multiple warnings, a 21-year-old woman was taken into custody and charged with wearing a mask at the event. The gun-toting attendees even cleaned up the area afterward. “They picked everything up and made it look nice,” Richmond resident Jack Hamilton told WRIC reporters.

However, Northam and his court seized on the events of Lobby Day to enact new repressive measures against dissidents. A few days after Lobby Day, Virginia Democrats introduced a bill to criminalize “Harassment by computer”—that is, online criticism of Democrats and their allies in government.

Speaking to National File, Nick Freitas, a Republican delegate representing Virginia’s 30th district, warned that Virginia House Bill 1627 “could potentially create a two-tier system, where politicians and members of government could pursue harassment charges that ordinary citizens would not be able to.”

Had HB 1627 been enacted at the time pictures of Northam wearing blackface emerged, he may have been able to penalize reporters and online users who dug up and shared the pictures. Perhaps Joe Morrissey, a sitting Democratic lawmaker in Virginia who was jailed for six months for having sex with his underage secretary, could also claim “harassment” for being reminded of his peccadillos.

Could Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax—with multiple allegations of sexual assault against him—and Attorney General Herring—also caught in a blackface scandal—make claims of “harassment” that would result in jail time for their critics? It doesn’t take much imagination to see how a person guilty of such “cybercrimes” would also trigger Virginia’s new red flag laws against gun ownership. A paranoid mind might suspect that Virginia may be creating a legal framework in which citizens can be forcibly disarmed and jailed for criticizing those responsible.

a Rook Tactical Vehicle similar to the one deployed against gun rights protestors in Richmond, Virginia, in January 2020 (image courtesy Ring Power Corporation)In Virginia, three factors have created a toxic brew of state government authoritarianism which may be coming soon to a neighborhood near you: demographic change, external forces, and low conservative voter turnout.

“About 23 percent of Virginia’s foreign-born population arrived from Central America, the largest share of migration from any one specific region to the state,” journalist John Binder reported. “More than 11 percent of those Central Americans arrived from El Salvador.”

In 1990, Virginia’s foreign-born population was 5 percent, compared to 12.5 percent in 2017. An analysis of Census Bureau statistics for the 2018 midterm elections by Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic, also cited by Binder, found that every congressional district across the country where the foreign-born population exceeds approximately 14 percent had a 90 percent chance of being dominated by Democrats.

The day after Democrats captured both the Virginia House and Senate, Tram Nguyen of the New Virginia Majority group declared that progressives are “winning because we recognize the power of an electorate that includes and reflects the diversity” of “voters of color.” Speaking to The New York Times, Mark L. Keam, a Democratic member of Virginia’s House of Delegates and an immigrant from South Korea, “explained that demographic changes meant the people in the room were now in a position to help shape policy.”

Demographic change—which has surged in northern localities and urban areas—“is an even bigger factor” than Republicans yet understand or are prepared to admit, as Fred Barnes writes in The Wall Street Journal. Democrats, on the other hand, are ahead of the curve. The Virginia legislature has since approved bills to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, putting the state on the same motor-vehicle-bureau-to-voter-fraud track that California, Pennsylvania, and Texas have tread.

The effect of these energized blocs was felt all the more harshly due to low conservative voter turnout. To be sure, voter apathy is not endemic to the Republican Party, but it certainly seems to hurt them more when Democrats can count on reliable, ever-expanding blocs. “Comparing the 2019 election with the same election just two years ago,” writes Uriah Kiser in the Potomac Local, “in Stafford and Woodbridge’s House District 2, 240 fewer Republican votes were cast in 2019 in a contest where, once again, Democrat Jennifer Carroll Foy won the seat.” This was a typical trend in districts across the state, in a political game where losing by inches will cost Americans miles.

Reardon’s experience with the Virginia Guard was insightful. According to him, the most liberal elements of the Guard typically come from Northern Virginia, which is home to many federal employees and contractors, a reliably left-wing bloc. The Guard’s more conservative elements—typically lower grade officers and the enlisted—come from more rural and southerly regions. Reardon said that a similar dynamic is at play with local law enforcement. On and after Lobby Day, the outspoken voices among police were indeed local ones.

“If the bills go through as proposed, they will not be enforced; they’re unconstitutional,” Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan said. “We swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Virginia, and that’s what we’ll do.” Bedford County Sheriff Mike Miller assured citizens that neither he nor his deputies would “enforce unconstitutional laws,” and praised both the Second Amendment sanctuary movement and the Lobby Day activism. Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins had the most innovative approach. He told reporters his intent wasn’t to ignore the enforcement of state laws, but “to swear in thousands of auxiliary deputy sheriffs and make it legal for them to possess weapons that they’re trying to ban and restrict.” Jenkins has a big box of badges for every Virginian in Culpeper County.

Roughly speaking, local police have roots in their communities, while Capitol Police and State Troopers do not. The latter, therefore, are more inclined to follow the lead of the governor, no matter how “conservative” or “liberal” they are. The dynamic of transient-external forces facilitating change in communities bears out in the political realm as well. SB 16, after all, is a New York nightmare, brought to Virginians by Michael Bloomberg.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group that Bloomberg generously finances, spent approximately $2.5 million in the election that turned Virginia blue. “A gun-control lobbying group funded largely by billionaire Michael Bloomberg just helped Democrats take over the state government in Virginia—right in the National Rifle Association’s backyard,” CNBC reported. The NRA, by contrast, spent a paltry $300,000. Bloomberg wasn’t the only outsider who pushed political poison into the bloodstream of the Old Dominion. The Democrats recently managed to capture top prosecutor spots in four of Virginia’s most populous counties with outsider money.

“I think what this victory says is we have to rethink the old myth that the way to safety is locking people up,” Arlington Commonwealth Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti said. Dehgani-Tafti has said she would like to eliminate cash bail, end prosecution for marijuana possession, and expand “diversion programs”—sentences where criminals skip jail and go straight to “rehabilitation.” Fairfax county Prosecutor Steve T. Descano said he intends to “root out systematic racial discrimination” that supposedly pervades the justice system. Loudon County Commonwealth Attorney Buta Biberaj wants to keep more criminals out of jail and crackdown on cybercrime—a term effectively defined in the state as harassment by computer, and easily extended to online criticism of a politician.

Dehghani-Tafti, Descano, and Biberaj were bankrolled by Justice & Public Safety, a political action committee funded by George Soros, by whose foreign hand “outcomes were powered to a significant degree” for progressives in Virginia, as The Washington Post reported.

Taking note of who is bankrolling what, the residents of Tazewell County continue to contemplate secession and reconstitution as part of West Virginia. “This is the only way we can make Bloomberg’s money worthless,” said Joseph H. McClung, a resident of Rich Creek. McClung spoke before the County Board of Supervisors during a discussion about a possible future as part of West Virginia:

West Virginia shares our values. This is the only way for you to put a stop to it. One of the things is we don’t have to move. We can move the goal post back to the border. We the people of the disenfranchised county will be free at last.

McClung is mostly right—but what happens when there is nowhere left to turn? Surely West Virginia will, in time, fall to the same forces that have brought the noxious winds of change to Virginia.

As of this writing, legislation to outlaw the sale of AR-15 rifles, to ban the suppressors, and prohibit large-capacity magazines has so far failed. Five pieces of gun control legislation, however, including the “red flag” law, have been signed by Northam. But this is not a victory. “To take a victory lap on such a controversial issue at a time when Virginians are buying firearms at a record pace to protect themselves and their families is counterintuitive,” House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert said. Amid the pandemic, the FBI is reporting record numbers of background checks, indicating surging gun sales. The country is at once more polarized, more paranoid, and more heavily armed.

In the days after Virginians marched on Richmond, the Virginia House struck down the state holiday honoring Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. With the pandemic as a pretense, Northam mandated the closure of shooting ranges and put restrictions on firearm and ammunition retailers. So far, one range in Lynchburg has managed to sue the state to reopen its doors. Northam should know better; Southerners have never let fearful odds get in the way of a good fight.

Virginia’s troubles are in truth our own, wherever we are. They are harbingers of things to come or that have already arrived. They show us what hides behind the mask that progressivism wears, and recall those words spoken by Catulus upon seeing stirrings of tyranny in Caesar. “No longer, indeed, by sapping and mining, Caesar, but with engines of war art thou capturing the government.”

Our later-day Caesars in Virginia and elsewhere would do well to remember the motto on the state’s seal: Sic Semper Tyrannis: Thus always to tyrants.

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