Pro-gun activists threaten to kill state lawmaker over bill they misunderstood

Virginia’s only socialist state legislator said he has been the target of multiple death threats over a bill that pro-gun activists misinterpreted as a potential threat to their rights.
The legislation introduced by Lee Carter, a 32-year-old Bernie Sanders-endorsed socialist, would allow public school teachers to strike without being fired, and has in fact nothing to do with guns. But some gun rights activists wrongly interpreted it as an attempt to fire law enforcement officials who might refuse to comply with gun control laws introduced by Virginia’s new Democratic legislative majority.
The result, Carter said, has been a torrent of threats and abuse on social media, from promises to vote him out of office, to claims that “this is tyranny and you know what we do to tyrants,” to explicit threats of murder, like, “I’m going to make sure you don’t live through this legislative session” or “I’m going to kill this guy, y’all make sure you don’t forget my name.”
Carter, says he has been so concerned about the death threats that he has started openly carrying a handgun to protect himself.
On Monday, when tens of thousands of gun rights activists will converge on the state capitol in Richmond for what is expected to be a volatile demonstration against the new gun control bills introduced by Virginia Democrats, Carter said that he plans to be in hiding, at an undisclosed location, concerned that he might be a target of violence even in his own home.
Among the threats against him, Carter said, there had been frequent mentions of Monday’s pro-gun protest, “and a lot of people saying, ‘We’re going to kick off the second American civil war. This guy is going to be the first one to die. Make sure you show up armed.”
Carter said he had reported a handful of what seemed to be the most serious social media threats to Virginia’s capitol police.
The Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, declared a state of emergency on Wednesday in advance of Monday’s pro-gun rally, citing law enforcement intelligence that armed anti-government activists were traveling from other states to join the rally, some of them with the goal of “violence, rioting and insurrection”.
Carter, who was re-elected to Virginia’s general assembly this November, said that the legislation that had led to death threats against him had originally been introduced last year. It was designed to repeal current Virginia law, which bars all public employees from striking, a policy that has been on the books since at least the 1950s, he said.
Public school teachers in other states have used strikes “to successfully raise the alarm about the conditions that they are teaching kids in”, Carter said. As a supporter of workers’ rights, he said, he wanted to make it possible for Virginia’s teachers to strike without being fired.
His original bill did not even get a hearing last year, he said, in part because his fellow lawmakers were concerned about the possibility of strikes by police officers undermining public safety. So he re-wrote the bill language, allowing all public employees except law enforcement officials to strike without penalty, and re-introduced it for the 2020 legislative session.
But when some gun rights activists read the bill, they claimed it meant something entirely different. Carter’s bill to allow teacher strikes was written into a broader narrative “that spread like wildfire within the conspiracy-minded parts of the rightwing internet”, he said, claiming that the state’s Democratic governor was working to confiscate Virginians’ guns, and that his new legislation was designed “to fire cops who don’t confiscate guns”.
That conspiracy theory relied upon a basic misreading of the bill text, which in fact kept longtime Virginia law intact for law enforcement officers, and created a new exemption for other public employees.
While a gun rights YouTube channel had appeared to be central to spreading the misreading of his bill to a wide audience, Carter said that some of the misinformation about his bill appeared to be fueled by police unions, and even by a fellow Republican state lawmaker – all people, he said, who should be able to accurately read legislation.
A gun rights activist outside the Virginia state capitol building as the general assembly prepares to convene in Richmond, 8 January 2020.
 A gun rights activist outside the Virginia state capitol building as the general assembly prepares to convene in Richmond, 8 January 2020. Photograph: Jonathan Drake/Reuters
A longtime gun owner and marine veteran himself, Carter said he has never introduced any legislation related to guns, and that he considers himself a moderate when it comes to gun laws – supportive of universal background checks, for instance, but skeptical of an assault weapons ban.
“I got re-elected without saying the word gun once,” Carter said.
That was not the case for some of Virginia’s Democratic politicians, who had campaigned on gun violence prevention as a central issue in November’s elections. After Democrats won full control of the state government for the first time in 26 years, Virginia’s Democratic governor announced that passing gun control laws, including an assault weapons ban, would be a top priority.
Carter said he saw this choice as a “terrible idea”, one that played directly into conspiracy theories that have circulated in rightwing groups for decades. The draft legislation for a Virginia assault weapons ban, which was originally written to include a ban on the possession of military-style weapons, sparked fears of confiscation among Virginia’s gun owners, and helped fuel a passionate grassroots movement against gun control across the state.
“[The extreme right] has been saying for years that an assault weapon ban is going to be their excuse to start killing people,” Carter said. “I tried to have this conversation with my colleagues, but, frankly, a lot of my colleagues don’t want to believe that that’s out there.”
“I won’t even say it’s like a landmine, because a landmine you can’t see. There’s a big button on the ground that says, ‘If you step here, it will explode’ and Democrats just stomped on it, because they didn’t want to believe that it exists.”
Instead, he said, he believed Democrats had an “head in the sand” mentality, he said, “that we can enact this policy, and that it will be fine”.
“Their faith in institutions is so strong that they refuse to believe it’s not shared by everyone.”
While Carter has previously kept guns for self-defense in his home, he said he has never before regularly carried a gun in public. Now, he said, he will be continuing to monitor internet chatter, and showing up armed to public events when he believes there might be heightened risk of an attack.
“I am having to take steps to protect myself and protect my family,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten to this point.”
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