Every Saturday morning, my father and 12 year-old son go to the Alexandria farmers market. My son gets cookies. My dad gets ham biscuits. A few weeks ago, they brought me some homemade salsa. More recently, they got something else.
Four men in a group called “The Right to Bear Arms” showed up at the farmers market carrying AR-15 assault rifles outfitted with scopes and bipods for sniping. According to a video by one of the group‘s members, they staged this action to “educate people” about gun rights and “exercising our constitutional rights without fear to do so.” The video is also filled with the usual references to freedom and the government taking away rights if you do not use them. The man also indicated the group intended to do these kind of “monthly walks.”
While the current president has lowered the bar for socially acceptable political conduct and while the display was technically legal, it was outrageous.
It never escapes me that Lee Boyd Malvo and John Muhammad, better known as the “D.C. snipers,” terrorized Northern Virginia for two weeks using an AR-15. Every time I hear that word, it triggers memories for me of the 10 people who were murdered and three others, including a 13-year-old, who Malvo and Muhammad shot in the region in 2002.
Those memories have only been reinforced by the recent carnage inflicted by the AR-15, including in Poway, Aurora, Orlando, Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Waffle House, San Bernardino, Sutherland Springs, El Paso, Tree of Life and Midland/Odessa two weeks ago. The sight of an AR-15 in public is anything but reassuring.
These “education lessons” are extremely dangerous. Perusing a farmers market with an assault rifle in a country that sees an assault rifle-related mass shooting about six times per year is more likely to promote shock, fear and terror than it is likely to “educate” anyone.
If anything, the presence of an AR-15 is more likely to incite violence than to deter it.
The United States and Virginia are currently being strangled by a small minority that wields political power orders of magnitude larger than its numbers. Background checks are supported by more than 90% of the public. “Red flag” laws that would allow judges to take guns from dangerous persons are supported by over 80%. Laws limiting ammunition clips are supported by over 60% of voters. Assault weapon bans have majority support. None of these bills are capable of passing in a Republican-controlled Virginia General Assembly or the U.S. Senate because of internal Republican Party politics.
There is no question in my mind that the Right to Bear Arms’ displays at the farmers market were not done to “educate” anyone. They were done to threaten, intimidate and terrorize a community that believes firearms should be more tightly regulated. The First Amendment protects speech, but it does not protect physical threats.
While the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens who would never dream of parading their weapons in public spaces, this incident demonstrates there is a minority who are irresponsible. Similarly, while most people drive safely, there are others who would be happy to drive 100 miles per hour on the Beltway. We have rules to keep our communities safe and control small groups of people who are incapable of being either responsible or exercising self-control.
Fairfax County, Arlington County and the City of Alexandria (but not Prince William County) already wisely prohibit loaded rifles from being carried automobiles. But this incident only underscores the need for the commonwealth to prohibit the open carry of assault weapons at a minimum at permitted events or at public assemblages.
Alternatively, the commonwealth should consider allowing localities to regulate the public carriage of assault rifles to ensure they are consistent with the expectations of each local community. I am sure we will be taking this up next session in Richmond.
In the meantime, my advice for this group called “The Right to Bear Arms” is simple: Go home and stay away. You are not doing anything to help your cause. People go to farmers markets to buy local food. They don’t go there for lessons in firearm rights, terrorism, bullying, intimidation or demonstrations of male insecurity.
The writer, a Democrat, represents the 36th District in the Virginia state Senate. He can be reached at email@example.com.