There were an estimated 22,000 people from all over the country who swarmed into Richmond yesterday in order to express their opposition to commonsense reforms to end gun violence. Shortly after all of this wrapped up, however, a group of concerned Virginians gathered outside the NRA’s national headquarters in Fairfax County to listen to students and others speak about how gun violence has impacted their lives.
The optics of the two events were drastically different as the crowd in Richmond was filled with predominately older white males dressed in camouflage and military tactical gear while carrying assault weapons. It almost appeared as though the crowd was a poorly organized military unit waiting for the high command to let them know the plan as they headed into battle.
In sharp contrast, the group outside the NRA headquarters was extremely diverse. Perhaps the most noticeable part of the crowd was a couple dozen students who had spent the day down in Richmond, but the entire group was made of people of all ages, races, and backgrounds.
The rhetoric used at the two events was also noticeably different. In the lead up to the rally down in Richmond, many members of the crowd had been spreading misinformation and even resorted to sending death threats to some folks who supported commonsense reforms. The misinformation and hatred they preached continued during the day as they tried to scare people into supporting their cause.
The group outside the NRA headquarters was a somber affair, however, and featured the personal stories of several community members. It’s truly unfortunate how many people in the are have lost a loved one to gun violence and we got a vivid reminder of this since the first people to speak was a father who lost his daughter during the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in April of 2007.
In a sign of how much work needs to be done, he reminded us of how everybody thought there was going to be sincere action after the tragedy at Tech. But while there was a significant amount of attention given to the issue during the initial few weeks following the shooting, it appeared as though many folks simply forgot about it and moved on. At least until we saw another one of the countless other mass shootings in the years since — including in Virginia Beach last year.
“Many of you will remember back in the aftermath of the shooting in Virginia Beach when our governor and his administrator vowed to finally bring sane gun laws to this commonwealth,” the father said in an attempt to frustratingly illustrate how action never seems to happen. “He convened a special session and you’ll remember what happened. The gun lobbyists shut it down after 90 minutes.”
He went on to point out the Republican leadership, who allowed the NRA to set up a war room in the speaker’s office, claimed we needed to do more studies before any real action could be taken. Of course, he was also quick to mention we’ve seen study after study conducted while the NRA continues to fill the campaign coffers of candidates who block any real reform.
With all that being said, the students who spoke made it clear they were determined to see action taken by our elected officials. Many of them had traveled down to Richmond in order to lobby the General Assembly. Interestingly, they coordinated with members of the House of Delegates via social media to make sure they’d be safe while doing making their voices heard and were able to avoid harassment from the anti-gun violence prevention extremists who swarmed the city.
One of the first students to speak told the crowd about how inspired he was after having the opportunity to help organize the trip and work with his fellow students. He also passionately spoke about how they realize they have the backing of other tireless advocates and therefore refuse to give up until some sort of concrete action is taken.
“As you talk about the moral arch of the universe, we’re there and really witnessed and felt the strain of that bending today,” he told the crowd. “It’s because of all you showing up at the ballot box, showing up here, showing up every day to make a change, and we really deeply appreciate it. We really carry all of that with us and we’re imbued with purpose because of all of you. We’re never giving up and we’re not going to hand this to the next generation.”
Several of the students also spoke about how the outrage over gun violence shouldn’t just happen after mass shootings because they only account for “1.5 percent of all gun violence.” To really have an impact, the students argued, “we need to address to address the root cause” of all the violence. And according to some of them, it’s communities of color who are impacted the most.
“The reason that we’re here today, especially as a black woman, is because we are the most effective by the gun violence,” a young female student said while addressing the crowd. “We are the most affected in these low income communities. The gun trafficking of these guns needs to be regulated. It needs to be stopped. And they’re doing nothing about it.”
“We might not have changed anyone’s minds today, but we spoke to a lot of different delegates from both sides of the aisle,” another student of color said after highlighting how the group was “lucky enough” to have supportive people as they advocated for commonsense reforms. “Our opinions might not have mattered to them, but we made sure that our opinions were heard and that they know that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”
On what was perhaps the best message to end the event on, the final student to speak talked about how coming together as a group can actually empower individuals. And if we’re going to be successful, he said, it would be “by using love.”
“It’s easy to feel helpless when we’re doing this work, but after spending the last 24 hours with these people, I don’t feel so helpless anymore,” the young man proclaimed. “The way we’re going to win this is by using love. Love of humanity and love for people all around us. That’s something that we have that I truly believe the other side lacks.”
“We’re not going to make the difference unless we’re doing the action,” he added. “We can’t honor these individuals like Dr. King without getting involved in the fight.”
And it was in that spirit that the crowd sang a few choruses of We Shall Overcome. The group wasn’t necessarily filled with the best technical singers in the world, but it was definitely a beautiful moment. So for those who are interested, here’s a little audio of the signing.