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Virginia's Rampup to Civil War

Virginia's Democrats decide to raise the stakes with firearms.

By Petrarch  |  December 28, 2019

With choruses of "Merry Impeachmas" ringing in America's ears, once-marginal concerns over a possible civil war are now fully mainstream.  It's widely observed that the bi-coastal and elitist Left live in an entirely different reality from the "Real Americans" in flyover country, and it's becoming harder and harder to see how we can continue to live together.

The Left, clearly, refuses to be ruled by a Trump administration and its policies; equally clearly, the rest of America is not going to tolerate a regime that attempts to ban (or tax out of existence) hamburgers, air conditioning, automobiles, ammunition, paper cups, and straws.

Yet seeing the precise steps leading to an actual split marked by armed conflict has always eluded us.  In our first Civil War, state governments declared their independence, took control of their militia and armories (the equivalent of today's National Guard), occupied any Federal installations on their soil such as the famous Fort Sumter, and events proceeded from there.

How, exactly, is that supposed to take place in our integrated globalized world of instant communication, fantastically costly weapons platforms that take the entire country to produce from parts sourced all over the world, and military units that are intentionally comprised of soldiers from all across the nation to prevent exactly that sort of thing from happening again?

Thanks to the results of November's election, the state of Virginia is starting to paint a clearer picture of how this will take place given current trends.

The Blueing Process

It wasn't that long ago that Virginia was considered a mostly-red state.  Like all red states, its cities were pockets of bright blue, but there was more than enough hinterland to ensure that Republicans always held a lot of state-level power and generally most of it.

Being adjacent to 100%-Democrat Washington, D.C. and solid-blue Maryland, Virginia occupied a special position.  When political types came up in the world and moved inside the Beltway, the young singles liked the urban core, but folks with families generally sorted out onto opposite sides of the river: Democrats in Maryland, and Republicans in Virginia.  Over the years, bureaucrats and government contractors tended to follow suit, with social-services types in Maryland and defense sorts in Virginia.  Of course there were exceptions, but the overall tendencies were clear and the politics followed accordingly.

In recent years, this has changed: more and more people moved from other places into Northern Virginia (NOVA) to take well-paying government jobs, all of which tend to thrive on Big Government and thus to lean Democrat.  At the same time, the industries surrounding Norfolk and its naval bases, being largely unionized, government-related, and riddled with minority set-asides, also both attracted and created Democrats.  Lastly, Richmond, as both a city and the home of state government bureaucrats, also stayed solid blue.

Thus, the blue areas in Virginia's right-side corners grew, as did Democratic power.  The Rest of Virginia (often called ROVA) stayed Republican.  The county color map didn't change too much - only a bit, as suburban counties surrounding the cities went blue - but the blue zones grew vastly in population as did their representation in the state legislature.

In 2019, this decades-long demographic shift finally came to maturity: Democrats already held all the top state executive offices and finally took control of both houses of the state legislature.  Republicans are now entirely shut out of effective state-level power, even though they control the bulk of the territory of the state.

Striking While the Iron Is Hot

Given that the top state executives, all Democrats, have all been hammered by personal scandals that would sink any Republican, one might think they'd at least govern in a somewhat humble way.  Not so!  Before the newly Democratic legislature has even been seated, its goals have already been announced:

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam vows it's "a new day and a new landscape" in Virginia. He says when Democrats take over the state legislature for the first time in a generation at the start of the new year, passing gun violence prevention laws will be a top priority... Northam unveiled a series of gun control measures, including universal background checks, a ban on assault-style weapons and outlawing sound suppressors like the one the Virginia Beach shooter used.

On the issue of banning assault weapons, [NPR interviewer] Kelly asked Northam what he will do about the ones Virginians already possess. "Will you confiscate them?" Kelly asks.

"No ma'am, not at this stage," Northam said, "We're looking at banning the sales of assault weapons ... that would be what we would start with."  [emphasis added]

Gov. Northam spoke the truth - as of the time of the interview, he indeed wasn't planning on confiscating any guns, because the laws to do that didn't (and still don't) exist.  He said "not at this stage" which makes it pretty obvious which way the wind is blowing, though, and the Republican politicians in ROVA and their voters were taking no chances:

Though the 2020 legislative session has not yet begun, more than 40 counties have adopted Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions in opposition to those potential gun control bills. Dozens of other county boards are slated to discuss similar resolutions in the coming weeks...   [emphasis added]

The resolutions contain similar language and outline counties' concern with and intent to oppose any laws they believe would infringe on Second Amendment rights. Some allude to how the county would push back in practice against future laws: A resolution passed by Gloucester County, for example, notes the county's intention to "use such legal means at its disposal to protect the right of the citizens to keep and bear arms, including through legal action, the power of appropriation of public funds, and the right to petition for redress of grievances." In another case, passage of a resolution led to a sheriff vowing to deputize "thousands" of citizens to protect their gun rights.

This is called "nullification," when a lower level of government passes laws declaring that a higher level's law is invalid.  We saw exactly this in the run-up to the Civil War, as the South tried to nullify various antislavery laws and the North did the same regarding capturing runaway slaves.  More recently, many liberal cities and counties have nullified enforcement of our immigration laws, to the massed applause of the liberal mainstream media.   Of course, when conservatives do the same thing, it's the second coming of Hitler.

Take note of the numbers involved.  We aren't talking about a small backwoods redneck Hazzard County run by Boss Hogg and Sheriff Rosco.  We're talking about nearly the entire geographic state of Virginia rejecting the plans of its elected legislature, the big cities excepted of course - since the above article was published, the number of such counties is now nearly 100.

Some of the resolutions merely express disapproval; some declare the intent to wage lawfare.  But an increasing number of sheriffs, as mentioned in the article, are making plans to grant local legal authority to ordinary citizens in an attempt to preserve their Constitutional right to keep and bear arms against, in their view, a tyrannical government opposed to that right.

The Governor's Oath

The situation is made more interesting by the oath which a new Governor of Virginia swears as a condition of taking office:

The oath of a Governor. "I ____, elected Governor of Virginia, by the representatives thereof, do solemly promise and swear, that I will, to the best of my skill and judgment, execute the said office diligently and faithfully, according to law, without favour, affection, or partiality; that I will to the utmost of my power, protect the citizens of the commonwealth in the secure enjoyment of their rights, franchises, and privileges, and will constantly endeavour that the laws and ordinances of the commonwealth be duly observed, and that law and justice, in mercy, be executed in all judgments; and, lastly, that I will peaceably and quietly resign the government, to which I have been elected, at the several periods to which my continuance in the said office is or shall be limited by law, and the constitution. So help me God."  [emphasis added]

The governor vows to do his utmost to protect the citizens of Virginia in the enjoyment of their rights, franchises, and privileges.  The Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which is binding on all states, says:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Bearing arms is not a mere privilege like getting a drivers' license, it's a longstanding right.  How can the new anti-gun laws which the governor has promised to sign be consistent with his oath to protect his citizens in the secure enjoyment of their rights?

There has been debate whether the right to bear arms was recognized individuals or only to members of a "well regulated Militia."  The US Supreme Court declared that this was an individual right, and barring some future amendment to the contrary, that's that.

To be on the safe side, however, some sanctuary counties are instituting well-regulated county militias so that gun owners who join cannot be denied the right to keep and bear arms.  In other counties, sheriffs plan to deputize licensed gun owners on the ground that law enforcement officers cannot be denied the right to bear arms.

Regardless of whatever promises might have been made to the anti-gun PACs which funded the Democrats' campaigns, it would appear that the governor will be in violation of his solemn oath of office if he signs a law taking away his citizens' rights.

There is an old Chinese curse, "May you have a lawsuit where you know you are right."  Compromise is difficult when both sides are totally convinced of the utter rightness of their respective causes and of the blinkered idiocy of the other side.

Actions and Opposite Reactions

Given all the pro-gun ferment all across the state, even the most foolhardy government official ought to sit down and carefully consider the best course of action.  If subordinate jurisdictions and large numbers of citizens are publicly stating their intention to arm themselves to resist your new law, you have to ask yourself: do I feel lucky?  Or at the very least, do I feel so powerful politically and militarily that I can afford to disregard their views entirely and force my will on them at the point of a gun?

Abraham Lincoln wrestled with this decision.  He did not want to have a Civil War.  He didn't feel particularly strongly about ending slavery, as we now know:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

However, the choice wasn't his.  The South had decided that they wanted out, and southerners weren't willing to accept any compromises.  Given that, Lincoln's choice became: let them go?  Or use force to save the Union?

We all know the result: he chose to use force to save the Union, and did so at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dead Americans.  Along the way, he also freed the slaves, which was certainly well worth doing in its own right but was not his primary objective.

The government of Virginia would appear to be presented with a similar choice: Is it worthwhile to use deadly force to strip American citizens of the longstanding Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms that their forefathers fought and died to earn for them?

It would seem that at least some of Virginia's political masters have reached a decision.  Democratic Virginia Rep. Donald McEachin suggested:

Ultimately, I'm not the governor, but the governor may have to nationalize the National Guard to enforce the law.  That's his call, because I don't know how serious these counties are and how severe the violations of law will be. But that's obviously an option he has.

We should all thank God he's not the governor!  The fact that such a man holds elective office should scare us to the soles of our boots.

He's not entirely wrong, though.  One of the major reasons that we have a National Guard is to suppress domestic insurrections - that is, a situation where a local district rejects higher state authority, which is exactly what's happening here.

We could hope and pray that wiser heads of the ruling Democrat party prevail and they step back from their announced legislative plans.  We'll wait a moment while you recover from your choking fit of hysterical laughter at the thought of politicians acting in a reasonable manner.

On the Road To Combat

It's becoming dismayingly easier to see how this plays out: Virginia's Democrat-held legislature bans guns, or some significant subset of guns.  All of Virginia outside the cities refuses to participate in enforcing the laws, nullifying them in their localities, so for a time nothing changes outside the cities regardless of what the law says on paper.

Eventually, Democratic Governor Northam must make a choice: Should he admit that his laws are a laughingstock and his power doesn't extend beyond urban boundaries?  Not very many politicians are willing to do that.  Indeed, his Attorney General already promised they would be enforced by whatever means necessary.

If local police refuse to enforce his laws, he can send in the state troopers, but there we encounter a problem.  Most state troopers don't live in the cities, and even most of those that do tend to like firearms. They may not be willing to disarm their fellow innocent citizens, particularly if a significant fraction of their fellow citizens are willing to resist violently.  Many may refuse or resign, making the governor look ever weaker.  In any case, there aren't nearly enough of them to do the job if the sheriffs and local police refuse to cooperate.

That leaves the National Guard, and once again, we run into similar realities.  Would the leadership of the Guard enforce such laws?  As commissioned officers, they can resign, but that would simply mean that the only leadership left would be those that support gun confiscation.  And make no mistake, confiscation is where this is going - if not immediately from individuals, certainly from any vendors of guns.

Enlisted Guardsmen don't have the option of resigning; like all serving members of the military, they need to do as they're told or else.  The "or else" isn't pretty, but if they obeyed, the results would be even less pretty.

Messiness is inevitable because soldiers are very different from police.  Policemen are trained to "serve and protect," on the assumption that most of the people they meet are innocent of any crime.

Soldiers, on the other hand, are trained for armed combat, where the world consists of your side and The Enemy, and your job is to make The Enemy dead as expeditiously as possible.  They're untrained, unskilled, and inexperienced in de-escalation, negotiation, or compromise; it would be totally unfair as well as unrealistic to expect them to be able to do it.

This is no hypothetical.  On May 4, 1970, after several days of increasingly vehement protest, members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on an unarmed crowd of Kent State University students who had gathered to protest the Vietnam War.  When the students started throwing rocks and caught the guardsmen between the mob and a fence, nearly 70 shots were fired in a 13-second period.  Four students were killed and nine were injured.  Much later, the official report said:

Some of the Guardsmen on Blanket Hill [where the shooting occurred], fearful and anxious from prior events, may have believed in their own minds that their lives were in danger. Hindsight suggests that another method would have resolved the confrontation.

It's totally clear that "another method would have resolved the confrontation," but military units aren't trained in "another method."  That's why we have a long tradition of not using our military for law enforcement; they're activated only when civilian government has broken down entirely.  The situation we're describing would be far worse: the local civilian government wouldn't have broken down, it would be organized and highly motivated to be active on the other side, just as during the Civil War.

If the National Guard gets involved, it is not merely imaginable but inevitable that a televised bloodbath would ensue.  What will happen when National Guard units encounter the county sheriff in uniform, backed up by a throng of deputized, armed citizens, many of whom are former military who took a solemn oath to defend the Constitution with their lives, their liberty, and their sacred honor?  What would happen when they start breaking down doors and confiscating guns?

It is inconceivable that the defenders of the Second Amendment would peacefully back down - that's the whole point of the Second Amendment, after all - and thus far, Democratic rhetoric doesn't seem to leave much room for backing down either.

No Such Thing as Limited War

Shall we go one step further?  We're now watching the smoke rising over what amounts to a small-scale battlefield between the Virginia National Guard and the sheriffs and deputies of one or more counties along with however many gun rights advocates stream in from adjacent states to augment the flash mob.  Unlike the slaughter of 1861, this will be broadcast live and in living color.

Of course, the National Guard has tanks and most sheriffs don't.  Odds are, they'll win, but only by slaughtering large numbers of Trump voters - and yes, obviously, it will be Trump voters lying dead at the hands of, ultimately, Mr. Trump's political enemies.

What would the President do?  Well, what could and should the President do?  Legally, he can nationalize the National Guard and order them to stand down, but by that time the Guard officers who might have obeyed his orders to stand down would have long since resigned.

He could order in the regular army.  Now we have a battle between two trained, equipped armies - yes, literally, that is a Civil War by definition, assuming the regular army was willing to obey such an order and fire on their colleagues.

Would other governors stand idly by?  Dare we imagine what Congress would do?  Might there be a 25th Amendment coup, as the media and the bureaucracy have been agitating for since before Mr. Trump took office?  How would the half of the country that voted for Mr. Trump respond to that?  Don't forget that Trump would either be in the midst of running for re-election, or recently re-elected to office.

Or, he could just suck it up and let the Democrat National Guard destroy "his" people and the Constitution by force.  This, too, has happened before.  Paul Hindenburg, while President of Germany, let Nazi stormtroopers effectively take control of the country and suppress opposing voters and politicians until, in short order, Germany was a Nazi one-party state.

Does this sort of passive compliance seem characteristic of what we've seen of Donald J. Trump thus far?  Let's just say it doesn't seem yuuuuugely likely that he'd let his supporters be gunned down without doing something about it.

Beyond this point, there are far too many unknowns to make any sort of solid predictions.  Wars never go the way people who start them intend, and the end result is almost always something nobody predicted and few wanted at the beginning.  Novelists could write any number of vaguely plausible scenarios, and we'll leave that job to them.

For now, though, we can clearly see what we didn't before: the first steps of escalating our longstanding war of words and starting our "United" States of America on the path to armed conflict.  The decision lies with Virginia Democrats, just as it did 150 years ago.

One of the dumbest things a leader can do is give an order that will be disobeyed.  Have southern Democrats learned any of the lessons of the past?  Have they forgotten that the American Revolution came about when the government ordered soldiers to march from Boston to Lexington to confiscate guns?

Or are they just as secure and confident in their own rightness and power as they were when they started the first Civil War in 1861?