Roanoke Gun Culture Providing a Haven for Terrorists, Insurrectionists
In November of last year, then-Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Virginia made national news when he issued a statement asking area agencies to stop providing assistance to Syrian refugees. “Since the recent terrorist bombing of the Russian airliner [Metrojet Flight 9268 departing Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport in Egypt], the attacks in Paris and now with the murderous threats to our nation’s capital, I am convinced that it is presently imprudent to assist in the relocation of Syrian refugees to our part of Virginia,” wrote Bowers. He then praised the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, writing, “It appears that the threat of harm to America from Isis now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”
Bowers’ statement drew an immediate firestorm of criticism from commentators across the political spectrum [including my boss, acclaimed actor and LGBTQ rights activist George Takei], who pointed out that there were no documented instances of terror or sabotage perpetrated by Japanese-Americans during that period. Bowers was so chastised that he ended up publicly apologizing for his remarks days later at a meeting of the Roanoke City Council.
It is unclear in hindsight whether Bowers legitimately feared the possibly of a terrorist attack in his region or whether he was simply venting personal prejudices. But one thing is now clear: Today, there are real terrorists operating in the Roanoke area. They have made threats and/or caused harm. And none of Roanoke’s leaders seem eager to stop them.
The Bomber Who Visited Roanoke
On the evening of September 18th, the FBI was frantically searching for a suspect, 28 year-old Ahmad Khan Rahami, after a pressure cooker bomb injured 29 people in the Chelsea area of Manhattan and additional bombs were found at a train station in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Their agents stopped an SUV on the Belt Parkway in New York City that “had been at a location associated with Rahami.” Five people were in the SUV. Two were from Virginia. Two were relatives of Rahami’s. Inside the vehicle the FBI found a “weapons stash.” Authorities believe that the five might have been trying to leave the state. They were arrested on the spot.
Shortly thereafter, police in Linden, New Jersey received a call about a man sleeping in the doorway of a local bar. When they approached him, they noticed he matched a description of Rahami. After the man was asked to show his hands, he pulled out a handgun and opened fire, striking (and injuring) two of the officers. He also began “indiscriminately firing his weapon at passing vehicles.” After a tense shootout, officers were able to wound and subdue him. He was indeed Ahmad Rahami, the suspect they had been looking for.
Although Rahami was a resident of Elizabeth, New Jersey, when authorities traced the handgun he used to shoot police officers, they found it came from a very different location: Roanoke County, Virginia.
Rahami had purchased the handgun at Trader Jerry’s in Salem, Virginia, a gun shop just five miles from the city of Roanoke. Although federal law prohibits Americans from crossing state lines to buy handguns from federally licensed firearms dealers, Jerry Cochran, the owner of Trader Jerry’s, claims that Rahami presented “a valid Virginia ID card and a current state fishing license” and passed a computerized background check when he bought the handgun.
It’s difficult to see how Rahami would have obtained a valid Virginia photo ID, however. In order to obtain a driver’s license in Virginia, one must must show two proofs of identity, one proof of legal presence and one proof of Virginia residency. His parents did not begin renting a property in Roanoke until December 2015, however, and Rahami was not listed on the lease. The property’s landlord can only recall seeing him there once, in April of this year.
What type of ID, exactly, did Rahami present to Jerry Cochran and his clerks at Trader Jerry’s? How did Rahami obtain this ID? Were Rahami and his associates who were arrested on the Belt Parkway running more than just one gun from Virginia to NYC? For now, these important questions remain unanswered.
Even worse, Virginia’s elected officials have made it even easier for the next terrorist to arm up. Just after Rahami purchased his handgun, a new state law took effect, “relaxing state requirements to one ID rather than two for a firearm purchase.”
“Sons of Liberty”
Ahmad Rahami came from out of state, but Roanoke is also dealing with homegrown terroristic threats.
On September 19th, just hours after Rahami was apprehended by police in New Jersey, a group of pro-gun advocates testified at two meetings of the Roanoke City Council. Several of them openly carried loaded firearms. They were there in opposition to a proposal the council was considering to lobby the General Assembly to add Roanoke to a 1991 state law that bans open carry of the following firearms in public places: 1) Semiautomatic rifles with magazines that accept 20 or more rounds; 2) Shotguns that hold seven or more shells.
The leader of the group was Daniel Highberger, who described himself as the president and founder of the Sons of Liberty militia, which is part of the national “Three Percenters” movement (the name comes from a belief that only three percent of colonists actually fought to win independence during the American Revolution). Highberger openly carried a Glock 9mm pistol loaded with 17 rounds, and two additional magazines of ammunition. During his public testimony, he issued a warning to the council’s members. “I’m here today to tell you, do not infringe on our rights, because there’s going to come a time when We the People do say enough is enough,” he told them. Later, he added, “If you continue to tread on the rights of We the People, I can’t speak for everybody, somebody might say, ‘Enough’s enough’ and do something about it.”
As Highberger spoke, two police officers stood in the back of the room, watching. They had been invited by Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill. He knew Highberger and his friends were coming. Morrill might also have been aware that Highberger has a lengthy criminal record, with convictions for assault & battery, eluding police, trespassing, and drug possession. “I’m just glad they didn’t bring assault rifles,” remarked Councilman John Garland after the meetings. Vice Mayor Anita Price called the firearms and threats “a show of intimidation.”
It wasn’t the first time Highberger and his companions had threatened the council in public. They were also present at the council’s meeting on November 20, 2015 when Mayor Bowers apologized to those who were offended by his remarks about the internment of Japanese-Americans. Highberger, however, was in no mood for reconciliation that day. He gave the following testimony:
I’m not gonna say every single Muslim will pick up a gun, or strap on a bomb, and go kill somebody, just like not every single American has the gumption to pick up their own Second Amendment right and protect the homeland. Not everybody’s a warrior, but everybody plays a part. They all go to their mosque, they all pray, and they all support their jihad … Pick up a Koran and see what it tells Muslims to do to the infidels … The difference between moderate and extremist is one’s holding a gun and one’s funding it. We don’t want [Syrian refugees] here. We The People have spoken.
Highberger’s fellow militia member Aaron DeMars also spoke that day, and threatened to arrest Mayor Bowers and other members of the council:
I don’t know if any of you have read the Constitution, but under Article 3, Section 3, if you give aid and comfort to the enemy, willingfully and knowingfully, you have committed treason. And as ISIS has stated, that they are and will use the refugees, allowing them to come to Ronaoke is willingfully and knowingfully aiding and giving comfort to the enemy. You also know that the citizens of Roanoke have the right to citizen’s arrest you if you give aid and comfort to the enemy. It only takes two of us to witness this act of you giving comfort to the enemy … You know what blood looks like?
Highberger and his “militia” also made news in December when they marched — armed — in Roanoke’s Christmas parade beside the Sons of Confederate Veterans and about 50 other Confederate flag-bearers.
The “Cold, Dead Fingers” Option
The Sons of Liberty militia is not the only insurrectionist group active in Roanoke.
During the weekend of September 10–11, the LGBTQ group Roanoke Pride hosted a “Pride in the Park” event in Elmwood Park in downtown Roanoke. The event occurred just weeks after the horrific mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, in which the LGBTQ nightclub The Pulse was targeted by a gunman who killed 49 and injured 53. Despite this fact, Roanoke Pride gave the radical pro-gun group Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) a choice booth at their event and allowed VCDL members to openly carry handguns. Additionally, several Roanoke Pride volunteers were photographed wearing “GUNS SAVE LIVES” stickers that were distributed by VCDL members.
VCDL opposes all gun laws, including even the weak federal, state and local laws that currently exist in this country. In addition, their president, Philip Van Cleave (who was the subject of a popular interview on The Daily Show), has told VCDL members the following:
Like it or not, the battle is never going away. Freedom isn’t free and we owe it to ourselves and future generations to protect the jewel of liberty. We must fight to hang on to our freedoms or they will surely be ripped from our fingers. Yes, there’s the “cold, dead fingers” option, but I’d prefer not to have to exercise that one if I can avoid it with political activism, wouldn’t you?
Van Cleave also routinely accuses gun violence survivors (like Andy and Barbara Parker) and others of “dancing in the blood” of those lost to gun violence.
A Magnet for Bad Guys
It is no surprise that Ahmad Rahami came to Roanoke to purchase his handgun. Rahami’s home state of New Jersey has a tough permit-to-purchase law. It requires fingerprinting, multiple character references, and an actual background investigation into an applicant’s criminal and mental health history. Rahami, a domestic abuser who had been investigated previously for connections to terrorism, undoubtedly had little desire to attract such attention and oversight as he was planning his bombings.
Virginia, however, presents no such problems. There is no fingerprinting for gun buyers. No references are required. And firearms can be bought through federally licensed firearms dealers in a matter of minutes after an instant, computerized background check.
The type of ubiquitous, toxic gun culture that was on display during the Pride in the Park event also provided cover for Rahami. The Gun has become a powerful totem for disaffected whites in the area like Daniel Highberger seeking an “equalizer” to restore their privileged position in society. Men whose fathers and grandfathers had good-paying jobs in rail and coal now toil in less “manly” professions; their dominant position over women and Americans of color increasingly a relic of the past. Many see firearms as a way to cultivate respect. Others use their weapons to influence government and American society through threat of violence.
In Roanoke, it’s not unusual to see a group of angry men openly carrying loaded firearms down the street, or at a local government meeting — legally. It’s a perfect environment for would-be terrorists looking to arm up while flying under the radar.
The Wrong Kind of Attention
Roanoke is a city looking to erase its reputation as “the forgotten stepsister of the Appalachians.” The area was a major economic and transportation hub in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the railroads and Big Coal vacated the area decades ago. The result was a “brain drain” that saw many professionals leave the city for more promising opportunities elsewhere.
Today, Roanoke is starting to get things turned around. The city features a revitalized downtown, a competitive medical school, a world-class research institute, and a robust partnership with Virginia Tech that provides opportunities in continuing education and workforce training. For the first time in 30 years, Roanoke looks to be reversing its population decline.
National attention for arming a terrorist — or being the site of a gun homicide committed on live television — is not the type of publicity Roanoke needs right now.
It’s unclear if Roanoke has leaders with the moral courage to question the damage being done by loose gun laws and radical gun culture. Electoral politics in Roanoke are personified by its state Senator, John S. Edwards, who has been in office for two decades now. Edwards is A-rated by the NRA and has done absolutely nothing during his tenure in the General Assembly to make it harder for dangerous people to get guns (and that tenure includes the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, which is part of his district). He now has the dubious distinction of being the last Democrat the NRA will endorse in the Virginia state Senate. Andy Parker, whose daughter Alison was killed while broadcasting on WDBJ-7 in Roanoke, was spot-on when he recently called Edwards “the biggest coward.”
Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea would love to sweep all this pro-gun extremism under the carpet and claim, “We’ve gone from a train city to a brain city.” But he and other area leaders must address this problem, which threatens to undermine the gains they have made.
Given the current state of affairs, will talented outsiders really want to migrate to a community that allows heavily armed extremists to operate with impunity?
My guess would be no.