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Virginia Governor Declares State Of Emergency Ahead Of Gun Rally


Thousands of gun rights advocates are expected to rally tomorrow in Richmond, Va., to protest plans by the state legislature to pass new gun control legislation. Members of antigovernment militias and white supremacist groups have been identified as planning to be there as well, and concerns about that have prompted Governor Ralph Northam to declare a state of emergency.

We've reached out to a couple of state senators to talk about the gun debate in Virginia. We'll hear from Republican Mark Obenshain in a moment. But first, here's Democrat Surovell.

SCOTT SUROVELL: Every year on Martin Luther King Day, the firearms rights community has always made it a point to come down and lobby us. And this year, it's like that on steroids. And it's - I think a lot of it's been driven by a lot of the hyperbole and a lot of the sort of exaggeration and a lot of pointing to laws that don't really have a chance of passing that has been done by a lot of folks the other side - not Senator Obenshain, but there's one or two others. And a lot of people are really on edge about it.

And I think a lot of this is driven by the fact that, you know, traditionally, the Republican Party has taken sort of an absolutist view on firearms issues and have said, you know, not one inch. We can't do anything, that any kind of change is an assault on the Second Amendment.

And so you have a lot of people who feel like if we just take the smallest step, that - even ones that are supported by 87% of the public - that it's going to be the end of the world. And so you have a lot of those people that are coming down to let us know how they feel about it.

MARTIN: So, Senator Obenshain, as a - you are the Republican, as I said. President Trump tweeted a couple days ago saying your Second Amendment rights are under serious attack in Virginia. Do you agree with him? Do you think that statement is accurate? And do - or helpful?

MARK OBENSHAIN: Well, I absolutely think that that statement is accurate. You know, Scott and I come from different parts of Virginia, and there is a vast dichotomy between the views of, I guess, folks within the Beltway and Northern Virginia and folks across the rest of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

And what I'm concerned about is that the agenda that's being advanced right now is an agenda that is clearly calculated to limit the rights and privileges of law-abiding citizens. While it's not doing anything to make Virginia a safer place, it is giving the illusion of doing something. What we did over the course of the past 20 years was actually reduce violent crime in Virginia dramatically. And the data certainly shows that.

MARTIN: So forgive me - because not to minimize the importance of this - the details here for both parties who are - because that's what your job is, is to work out the details. But I think anybody listening to our conversation will have felt that they've heard all this before.

So I guess what I'm wondering is, is there anything that would make a difference in sort of changing how this issue is discussed so that people who have different views on this can both walk away feeling that progress is being made and making us - this society safer for everybody? Do you understand what I'm saying?

OBENSHAIN: Well, I think I do. And what we have done over the course of the past 10, 15 years is work cooperatively as Republicans and Democrats. I've been chairman of the crime commission, and we work really well together on most issues. And when we can get down to data-based solutions that are really going to make a difference to keep Virginians safer, we can link arms, and we can work together.

But if you're suggesting that just because we - meaning the Republicans - lost this past election, we should shut up and go away or not express our views or opinions, I vehemently disagree with that. And it is within their rights, and it is tradition in America that we encourage people to advocate and express their views. And I think that the Democrats have gone too far and have touched a nerve that I'm not sure that they fully appreciated the depth of feelings across the commonwealth of Virginia.

MARTIN: OK. What about you, Senator Surovell? What do you think about that?

SUROVELL: Yes. So what - I would say two things to that. First of all, these firearms issues are so - are deeply cultural. The area that I represent - I represent Fairfax County, Prince William and Stafford. Fairfax County, only about 2% of its citizens hold concealed weapon permits. Mark's county, on the other hand, 25% of the people hold concealed weapon permits. So there's just a vast chasm in terms of people's familiarity and comfort with firearms. It's a cultural issue.

And I think there's a lot of folks on Mark's side who feel like there's a lot of finger-pointing and judgment about these issues when we talk about it. And I think the hyperbole that tends to get ginned up on both sides by the interest groups tends to make a lot of people feel like they're under attack.

And what I've seen especially - and I had a town hall yesterday, and I had several people that raised their hand and asked me questions about these bills - once you're able to have a conversation with somebody, have a human conversation instead of reading stuff on Facebook or Twitter or on the Internet, people start to understand where everybody's coming from.

MARTIN: Forgive me for trying to, you know, take a step back here, but I just want to ask, do you feel like anything productive has been achieved with this discussion? Because the reality of it is that people, you know, in Virginia elected the legislators who advanced, you know, certain positions that they made clear they were going to advance. And as you pointed out, Senator Obenshain, there are people who have views that disagree with that and are still expressing them. Do you think anything productive has been achieved by this - the current debate, either of you?

OBENSHAIN: I think that discussion and debate is always productive. I think that we have too little love. And one of the great things about Virginia is that every year is an election year. And while we had elections this past November, we have elections again this November. And every member of the House of Delegates is up for election in 2021. So, you know, this is a debate that will go on, and we'll just see how it plays out.

MARTIN: OK. Senator Surovell, what about you?

SUROVELL: I couldn't agree more with what Mark said. I think the more we discuss these issues and talk about them, I think more likely it is that people will hear each other and start to listen to each other.

Right now, the problem is people are getting their information from Facebook and Twitter, and they're hearing a bunch of hyperbole and exaggeration from organizations which are trying to gin up membership and trying to get their members activated. But the more we talk about it in the public sphere, and we talk about how these measures will improve public safety, I think the more likely people are willing to listen to each other and to consider them.

MARTIN: That is Virginia State Senator Scott Surovell - he's a Democrat - and Virginia State Senator Mark Obenshain - he's a Republican.

Thank you both so much for speaking to us, and good luck tomorrow.

OBENSHAIN: Thanks so much.

SUROVELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.