Thistlethwaite: Ballots not bullets
Abraham Lincoln famously wrote, in a passionate defense of the Emancipation Proclamation, “It will then have been proved that, among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case, and pay the cost.”
The ballot won in Virginia in the fall of 2019, and the thousands of gun-rights advocates who packed the streets around the Virginia Capitol on Monday carrying weapons, bullets, and flags and shouting slogans will not stop the passage of sensible gun legislation in that state.
By large margins, voters in Virginia say they support requiring background checks on all gun sales (86 percent to 13 percent) and passing a “red flag” law to allow guns to be temporarily removed from someone deemed a threat (73 percent to 23 percent), and by a smaller, though still significant margin (54 percent to 44 percent), they back a ban on assault-style weapons.
Moms Demand Action and other groups who favor sensible gun legislation put in the time and they made their case to voters in Virginia. The vast majority of Virginians don’t want to have to live with the fear of gun violence in their state.
Gun rights advocates failed to make their case at the ballot box, so this Monday they tried intimidation instead.
Make no mistake, this was not a “rally” in the sense of citizens marching and voicing their views before the legislature convenes. These attendees meant to show weapons in order to intimidate.
“This sends a strong visual message,” Brandon Lewis — who drove down from Bergen, N.Y., where he owns a shooting range — said, patting his rifle.
Yes, it does. The point of bringing all these weapons to the Virginia Capitol and marching around with them was to bully and intimidate the legislators who will be drafting and voting on this popular legislation.
The many news headlines that said the rally was “peaceful,” therefore, were incorrect. Intimidation in the thousands is not physical violence, it is true, but it is structural violence. Structural violence is the kind of social organization that disproportionately gives one group rights and privileges, while disprivileging other groups. It is also a kind of “psychological warfare” that induces fear.
The crowds at this Virginia “pro-gun” rally, according to observers, were overwhelmingly white, male and older. Can you imagine the police response if thousands and thousands of heavily armed African American men marched on a state capitol? African American men and boys who are unarmed are still shot and killed by police in this country.
It was a travesty to me that this “rally” took place on the holiday dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King led a nonviolent direct action movement for civil rights that was genuinely peaceful as the demonstrators were always unarmed and often were singing religious hymns. And yet Dr. King and the members of this nonviolent movement were routinely beaten, battered with fire hoses, threatened with dogs, arrested and jailed by the police.
Large numbers of older, white men carrying guns was the “visual message” as Brandon Lewis rightly said, and the message was one of intimidation and the attempt to induce fear. If intimidation was not the goal, gun advocates could have just carried signs advocating their views. Carrying giant guns and lots of ammunition speaks in a different voice. It speaks volumes and what it says is, “Be afraid of us.”
Here’s a recent Vail Valley example. I was shopping in a local food store and came upon a man open-carrying a large gun on his hip. I took my half-filled cart up to the front, informed management why I was leaving, and I went to another store. I felt threatened. I think I was supposed to feel threatened. Suppose he got angry because his bologna was cut too thick and he opened fire? Who knows when a gun is right to hand what could happen, and that includes an accident.
Moms Demand Action has successfully negotiated with larger food chains to ask their patrons to not open-carry guns in their stores. This was announced after several Walmart incidents. I have asked the check-out people at a local food store if they have seen any sign this is having an impact, however, and the few to whom I spoke said not. And one woman who has a relative who works at Walmart mentioned how afraid her relative is these days of the potential for gun violence in stores.
The Virginia legislators have pushed back after this rally. “You will see sensible gun violence prevention legislation pass this year,” Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington), said before heading into a party caucus.
That must be the case. The ballot must win over the bullet for us to have a meaningful democracy.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.