There are 400 million privately owned guns in America, by some estimates, and on Jan. 20, 2020, some 22,000 of their owners arrived at the State Capitol of Virginia, a neoclassical building designed by Thomas Jefferson that sits on a rolling lawn in the hilly center of downtown Richmond. The occasion was Lobby Day, a recent tradition in Virginia, held annually on Martin Luther King’s Birthday, on which citizen groups come to the Capitol to directly air their concerns to their representatives in the State Legislature. The concerns of the gun owners, who were assembled by an organization called the Virginia Citizens Defense League, were in one sense specific: They were protesting a raft of firearms-related bills the Legislature’s new Democratic majority was taking up that would tighten the state’s generally permissive gun laws. Seventy-eight counties in the state, making up the near-entirety of its rural areas, had declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” according to the V.C.D.L.
This was enough to attract the attention of the Oath Keepers, a national militia group that draws its membership from current and former military, law-enforcement personnel and first responders. In December 2019, the Oath Keepers issued a statement calling for “boots on the ground” in Virginia, accusing Gov. Ralph Northam and “oath-breaking politicians in the State Legislature” of violating the Second Amendment and warning of the prospect of his deploying the state’s National Guard against the sanctuary counties. Stewart Rhodes, the group’s founder, vowed “an ongoing campaign/deployment,” assisting sheriffs in the state’s dissenting counties in forming officially recognized local militias, directly lobbying military and law-enforcement members to refuse Northam’s orders and providing tactical training to “EVERYONE in the county who is loyal to the Constitution.”
As Lobby Day approached, federal agents arrested three men suspected of ties to the Base, a white-supremacist group, who said they were amassing weapons ahead of the rally. Northam, citing intelligence that “suggests militia groups and hate groups, some from out of state, plan to come to the Capitol to disrupt our democratic process with acts of violence,” declared a state of emergency, including a temporary ban on weapons in Capitol Square. The Virginia Citizens Defense League’s president, Philip Van Cleave, told The Washington Post that he hoped it would not become “another Charlottesville” — the 2017 white-supremacist rally that left one counterprotester dead — suggesting poor police and state planning was to blame for what had transpired there. He told militia members they were not needed to provide security; after all, he told The Post, the rally would be not only heavily policed but also attended by “enough citizens armed with handguns to take over a modern midsized country.”
Still, Van Cleave did not dissuade the militia members from attending, and they did, by the thousands. They threaded through the crowds on Ninth Street, along the Capitol grounds, wearing tactical gear and carrying AR-15-style rifles. The scene was dreamlike, the kind of thing that seemed at once impossible in America and only possible in America, the only country in the world that allowed private citizens to amass military-style weapons in such astounding quantities while also reassuring itself that such an arsenal would never prove politically consequential.
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” Mao Zedong observed in 1938. Americans, by contrast, have generally whistled past the full implications of their own privately held arsenal, treating guns as an object of politics, not a subject. This is partly a function of the country’s until recently unbroken modern record of peaceful transfers of power. It is also a triumph of Second Amendment activists’ messaging and their ability to successfully navigate that message’s central paradox: that the right to bear arms is constitutionally guaranteed because of the potential need to overthrow the same government that codifies the right in the first place. Gun rights advocates have done this mostly by confining their language with monotonous discipline to the fact and mythology of the Revolutionary War, associating gun rights with heroism and patriotism while also implicitly assuring that their exercise against the state is a matter of deep history. George Washington knew what Mao knew, of course, but his own revolution was an awfully long time ago.
The militia movement — which flowered in the 1990s and began to resurge amid a general rise in white-nationalist and antigovernment activity during Barack Obama’s presidency — has always challenged the niceties of gun rights rhetoric. Militias have stubbornly insisted that the government’s tyranny and their rebellion against it are not theoretical but real, that politics can and should be pursued not just on behalf of guns but by way of them. Nevertheless, in their ’90s heyday it was possible to see them as an eccentric, if occasionally violent, curiosity — especially for liberals ensconced in cities and suburbs that, outside the Pacific Northwest, were mostly far removed from the prominent theaters of militia activity. “To a Bostonian, they are a remote irritation with no visible impact on mainstream media, culture or politics,” the Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby told the journalist David A. Neiwert in “In God’s Country,” his 1999 book about the militia movement.