American states and cities are often referred to as laboratories of democracy. Our system of federalism gives relatively wide authority for individual jurisdictions to make their own laws, insofar as those laws don’t compete with the federal government’s authority under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution or violate state and national law (and even those are often given some leeway).
That unique system has gotten increased attention on the right recently, as a grassroots movement across Virginia is gathering steam, with a major demonstration in Richmond planned for next Monday.
If you’re out of the loop – something easy to be, given the mainstream media has largely ignored the movement or labeled the protest as a white nationalist gathering (it’s not) or some ugly parade of ill will – here’s the story in brief.
The new Democratic majority in Virginia’s state government has been in the process of passing a suite of restrictive laws related to private firearm ownership. Gun registrations – which advocates say are a slippery slope to gun confiscations – are among the chief concerns, as are proposed “assault weapon” bans, limits on new gun purchases, and stricter background checks.
Virginians are – forgive the pun – up in arms about it, and see these efforts as a blatant assault on their Second Amendment rights.
There have been demonstrations across Virginia, with over 100 cities, towns and counties declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuary cities that refuse to enforce components of the new laws.
Right now, it’s unclear how this situation will resolve itself. Virginia’s gun law may eventually be struck down – as many Second Amendment proponents are calling for – by the court system.
But we should be thankful for the funny little quirks of American democracy that gives such movements their legitimacy. Our federalist system forces these conversations and debates to come to a head, and the adjudicators in the court system have largely permitted this variety of disobedience.
Certainly, there are plenty of local laws that plenty of people, myself included, don’t like. As a conservative, I’m dispositionally skeptical of new ordinances on the whole. And many of the most heralded local efforts to thwart the federal government are on policy issues that bend left, like illegal immigration sanctuary cities (which also have a much more dubious connection to federalism, given the federal nature of immigration).
But local control is a central component of the conservative spirit. Decisions are best made by those with the on-the-ground knowledge and the perspective of a local stakeholder, not faraway government bureaucrats, regardless of the subject.
What better way to capture the quarreling, rambunctious spirit of the American people, and our collective ancestral resistance to far-off powers and burdensome rules?
Even as someone who doesn’t have any unique insight into the upcoming protest, I do worry about the government’s response. I hope I’m wrong, of course, but, come what may, we should be thankful that our nation is filled with people who hold their convictions strongly enough to stand up for the Constitution and their conscience. And we should be equally appreciative that our system of government empowers them to do so.
Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C. and a former Republican congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives.