RICHMOND — One man held an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and wore a black “Make America Great Again” hat. The other man held a sign with a picture of two arms in an embrace and the caption “The only arms we need” and wore a blue hat that said “Make America Obama Again.”
They were caught Tuesday morning outside the Virginia State Capitol between hundreds of anti-gun protesters on one side and a long line of gun rights activists on the other.
And they began to talk.
Guns are a constitutional issue, a fundamental right, explained the gun-toting Brandon Howard, 43, who said he is Republican Party chairman for the city of Hopewell.
Guns are a public safety issue that require restrictions, like driving a car, said Don Robinson, 70, a retired physical therapist from Alexandria.
“Safe regulation of guns is a rational measure to help protect lives in this country,” Robinson said.
Howard disagreed: no regulations. “I believe in the Constitution,” he said as gun control activists chanted “Enough is enough!” behind him.
“I have to have a fishing license. I have to register my car,” Robinson said. Laws are to protect public safety, he said. “It’s not for individuals to do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it. You stop at traffic lights for public safety.”
“One is a right, one is a privilege,” Howard said. “The Second Amendment was put into the Constitution to prevent a tyrant government. It wasn’t for hunting. It was to allow the citizens to stand up and put down a tyrant government.”
“No one is saying we’re trying to take your gun away,” Robinson said. “You felt that that’s what this sign meant?”
“I understand that’s not your position,” Howard said.
It was a moment of comity in day of bitter division.
From their conversation, Howard said, he understood that Robinson didn’t want to take all guns away. Robinson just wanted some limits, Howard said.
Robinson described working to rehabilitate people who had been made paraplegics by gun violence. Howard described being mugged at knifepoint and pulling out a gun to subdue his attacker.
In the end, that’s where it stood. No ground was gained or lost on either side. But each said he had a slightly better understanding of the other man’s position. Behind them, the protesters had started chanting, “Show me what democracy looks like!”
“If you want to know what democracy really looks like?” Howard said. “This is what democracy looks like, what we were doing — engaging.”
On the same morning, Charles Nesby of Northern Virginia headed into the Pocahontas State Office Building in Richmond with an orange “Guns save lives” sticker on his chest, a red “Make America Great Again” cap on his head and a semiautomatic pistol on his hip. His expectations were beyond low as he rode the elevator to the offices of the two liberal Democrats who represent him, Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (Alexandria) and Del. Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan Jr. (Fairfax).
“Waste of my time,” Nesby, 68, predicted on the way up.
Sullivan’s office was closed when Nesby arrived a little before 9 a.m. But three floors up, he had better luck with Ebbin, who not only remembered the email Nesby had sent him but invited him into his office to talk about it.
Ebbin explained his desire for universal background checks, recalling how he visited a gun show and saw how easy it was to buy weapons without one.
“We walked in the gun show, and I said, ‘We do not want to go through a background check, and they said, ‘Go to this booth,’ ” Ebbin said. “They said, ‘Fine, you don’t look like a bank robber.’ ”
Ebbin said he imagined that Nesby has undergone background checks.
“I have a White House top-
secret [clearance],” said Nesby, a retired Navy captain who was assistant secretary of veterans affairs under President George W. Bush.
As their meeting wrapped up, Ebbin said he would like to get together with him again to discuss gun policy further. Nesby was pleasantly surprised.
“We just had a nice talk with Ebbin,” he told a friend. “He wants to talk afterwards. He did receive my email and actually read it.”
“No!” said the friend, Russ Fisher of Woodbridge.
“Yeah, he was familiar with it,” Nesby said. “I was shocked.”