FRONT ROYAL – After word spread about the Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence on Saturday at the town gazebo, a group of counter-protesters decided to also voice their opinions.
The result was that about 70 citizens gathered for the vigil to remember victims of recent mass shootings, and to express distaste for local delegates’ gun policies. Opposite of a barrier erected by police was about 30 citizens, with some of them strapped with semi-automatic weapons.
On the vigil’s side, gun violence victims’ names were read off pieces of paper to be sent to Republican Delegates Todd Gilbert, Chris Collins, and Michael Webert. While names were recited, some counter-protesters interrupted with occasional boos and shouts.
As Madeline Phoenix Farris, a 14-year-old vigil participant, prepared to talk she encountered some of those shouts. In response, she said, “you are screaming and spewing hate. That is not why we are here, we are here out of love and compassion.”
Performances from teens at the Selah Theater Group were scheduled for the vigil but canceled due to comments on the Facebook group What’s Up Front Royal. Heather Davis, the vigil’s organizer, said that discussion was “very aggressive” because people “believe the lie that liberals want to take away the Second Amendment and take everyone’s guns away.”
“So the teens could not be here. They did not feel comfortable, they wanted to be here, but it just didn’t make sense,” she said.
The vigil was organized by Warren County Indivisible, a group formed after President Trump’s inauguration as opposition to the political landscape. Davis said the group is a collection of non-partisan “concerned citizen activists who work to defend our democratic principles of liberty, justice, and equality.” The vigil was held 1 p.m., shortly after the Warren County Democratic Committee’s meeting.
Davis said the vigil was inspired after the Virginia House subcommittee’s Jan. 25 vote against a bill making it a class one misdemeanor to manufacture, import, sale, or possess devices that increased the firing rate of semi-automatic weapons.
“In other words, this committee, which includes our delegate Michael J. Webert, declined to consider a regulation banning bump stocks. A regulation that even the NRA and President Trump have at least at one point considered reasonable,” Davis said.
Webert, along with Collins and Gilbert, declined invitations to attend the event. Since they could not be presented in person, vigil members plan to send 564 moral compasses representing those injured or killed in last year’s Las Vegas, Nevada, shooting to Webert’s office.
Ian Andrews, a counter-protester, said he came to the vigil because “I’m sick and tired of these liberal nut jobs messing up our country, so I’m out here protesting against it.” Wrapped around his chest was what he said to be an unloaded AR-15, a weapon he uses for a “variety of different things,” which are “all lawful and legal uses that you can use a rifle like this for.”
Gary Kushner, another counter-protester, carried a concealed weapon and said he did not agree with Andrews’ decision to display a semi-automatic rifle.
“There are people who are upset by that who don’t enjoy that, so there’s no need to shove it in their face,” Kushner said. “There’s no need to flaunt it. I’m interested in creating results, and that creates a bad result.”
Still, Kushner said assault rifles should be legal, and he owns one. He said he uses it “to punch holes in paper” and “they’re a lot of fun, and they’re extremely effective. And you can hunt with them as well.”
Kushner added that only responsible people should possess such weapons, which could be ensured by incorporating mental health facility records into background checks.
While Kushner said he does not have all the answers and is open for discussion, he believes vigil participants “would support eliminating the Second Amendment” and ban all guns.
Chris Sprague, a vigil participant, said “that’s not what I’m about.”
“Military gun types should stay with the military. If you want to have a gun, you should have a gun to shoot deer, to survive…But military guns are made to kill people,” he said.
Three Democratic candidates for Congressman Bob Goodlatte’s soon-to-be-vacated seat, Peter Volosin, Jennifer Lewis, and Charlotte Moore, spoke briefly at the vigil.
Moore agreed with Kushner, and said she thinks “we need to put more data in the system for background checks.” She added that “I’m a gun owner…but assault weapons in the wrong hands can be fatal.”
Lewis said she grew up with family members who hunt, but gun laws need to be changed.
“Together we will stop this issue by voting out the people who do not support keeping our kids safe and voting in people who do,” she said.
Volosin said gun laws render it a matter of when, not if, another mass shooting occurs. He said “real change” could be accomplished through conversations “with our neighbors.”
“Let us talk to our gun-owning neighbors. Let’s not post on Facebook, but actually call them on the phone or go to their home, invite them over for dinner. Open up the lines of dialogue so we can better understand each other. Many of them want to see similar changes for better safety, but are afraid to have the conversation,” Volosin said.
Volosin talked with counter-protesters and found common ground regarding beliefs that temporary restraining orders on gun purchases and in-depth background checks are needed.
“I think the problem that we have is these mass shootings happen and we retreat into our corners,” Volosin said. “We really need to start talking to each other.”