Sticking to their guns, pro or con
RICHMOND - Tucked into the Rev. John Hilton's shirt pocket was a miniature copy of the Gospel. Tucked into his belt was a 9mm handgun.
Hilton, whose clerical collar peeped out from a jacket showing a blaze-orange "Guns Save Lives" sticker, said there is no contradiction in carrying a Jimenez Arms semiautomatic and the New Testament, just as there is no contradiction in the idea that only by increasing access to firearms would society be a safer place.
"Even in the Bible, Christ told the disciples, 'Those who do not have a sword, let them sell their cloak and buy one,'â" said Hilton, 56, an EMT who drove from Accotink, Va., to stand in solidarity with about 200 other activists lobbying the Virginia General Assembly for increased gun rights.
Many carried guns, openly or concealed, into legislative buildings, including a man who waited outside his state senator's office with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle on his shoulder.
A short time after that rally, the Rev. Jonathan Barton, general minister of the Virginia Council of Churches, met beneath the same Bell Tower on the Capitol grounds with a much smaller band of demonstrators, including survivors of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, to call for stricter gun laws.
"Lord, we pray this day that those who turn to guns would hammer them into school textbooks," Barton said, a play on the biblical passage about transforming swords into plowshares. They urged support for a bill by Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) that would prohibit firearms in the Capitol and General Assembly building.
Monday was Lobby Day at the Virginia General Assembly, drawing thousands of advocates who argued for a host of causes, including legalizing marijuana, repealing federal laws and their views on gun control. Environmentalists with Sierra Club stickers crowded into elevators with tea partiers, some of whom dangled tea bags or waved "Don't Tread on Me" banners. People in polarized camps traipsed the same halls, but sometimes their causes coalesced in one person, such as the fellow who wore a NORML button (for the marijuana-law reform group) next to pro-gun stickers.
But the day was often dominated by the passionate debate over guns, intensified by the mass shooting in Tucson that killed six and injured more, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Last year, gun-rights backers put forward more than 60 bills, including a measure that would allow people to carry concealed firearms into places that served alcohol and another that would have repealed Virginia's limit on buying more than one handgun a month. The guns-in-bars bill passed; the repeal of one-gun-a-month did not.
This year, those supporting gun rights are working to pass HB2069, to allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons without obtaining a special license. They also lobbied for HB1732, which would require Virginia to recognize concealed weapons permits issued by other states, and HB1731, which would bar the federal government from regulating weapons manufactured and sold in Virginia.
"I've gotten some stares," said D.J. Dorer, 23, of Yorktown, who waited outside the office of Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) with the AR-15. "I'm not trying to cause a ruckus. I just want to show that I can come with it and then I can go, without any problems happening."
At the rally sponsored by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), who had sponsored the unsuccessful repeal last year, asked for a moment of silence for the Tucson victims.
Philip Van Cleave, the defense league's president, said that if more private citizens had been armed at the Tucson grocery store where the shooting occurred, they might have intervened, while York County Sheriff J.D. "Danny" Diggs warned that the Tucson killings could spur new gun-control efforts.
"There are going be those who try to take advantage of that tragedy and take advantage of our Second Amendment rights. Not only that - you can't even use a gun metaphor anymore," Diggs said.
Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, have renewed their push for closing the so-called gun-show loophole by requiring that all firearms buyers must undergo a background check at gun shows. Under current law, only transactions with licensed dealers require purchasers to submit to a background check. They also want to change a law permitting people to carry firearms in state legislative buildings, provided the gun owner has a concealed weapons permit. Several, however, said they were aggravated that lawmakers seem eager to enact protections for themselves that do not apply to the public.
"It sticks in my throat a little," said Andy Goddard, who heads the Virginia Center for Public Safety and whose son, Colin, survived the Virginia Tech shooting.
At their rally, gun-control advocates honored the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s lifelong ministry of nonviolent protest and noted that he had been a victim of gun violence. They wore blaze-orange stickers that read, "Background Checks Save Lives," and conducted the demonstration in a way similar to a memorial service.
Eighty roses were placed on the ground, one for each Virginia youth killed by guns in the past 12 months. In a call and response, the group recited a litany:
"Some 30,000 Americans die each year in the United States," Goddard said.
"And we grieve," the crowd answered.
"On average, 80 people are killed by guns every day, including eight children."
"And our hearts break."
Then, they lay down on the brick walkway for three minutes to symbolize those who had fallen to gun violence. Two women softly sang "We Shall Overcome."