Fear can be a powerful influence in our lives. A healthy fear of something that is harmful may keep us safe. Fear of the unknown can cause helpful caution or limit our perspective. Too often fear can be misused to manipulate the actions of others. In Richmond, as elsewhere, fear is evident and at work in many aspects of the legislative process.
When local government officials in Fauquier County shut down the operation of a roadside vegetable stand because it violated local zoning regulations, a firestorm of protests followed, fueled by a fear that somehow local government was interfering with residents’ “right to farm.” A bill that in its original form would have seriously limited the ability of local governments to regulate land use was introduced, modified in committee, and passed by the House of Delegates. Clearly the fears of the busload of proponents of the bill who came to Richmond to testify in favor of it were a powerful force. Legislators who themselves feared repercussions if they opposed the bill, watered it down to limit its harmful effects but chose to play it safe and passed it.
The fear of “big government” seems to have intensified in recent years. More than 300 people showed up on “Second Amendment Freedom Day” to make the case against government taking their guns—something no one has proposed to do. Many were armed; it is legal to “open carry” your gun in Virginia. One demonstrator was on Capitol grounds with an assault rifle; hopefully it was not loaded. Presumably many other demonstrators had concealed weapons, which they can carry with a permit. Encouraged by the NRA, Gun Owners of America, and the Virginia Civil Defense League to fear government, these demonstrators are not interested in dialogue about sensible gun laws. Even bills requiring criminal background checks at gun shows are viewed by the zealous as a first step in the government confiscating weapons. Retailers report record sales of guns and ammunition any time gun control is mentioned. Many legislators fear the “scorecards” published by the gun organizations and distributed to voters in their districts.
The ultimate expression of fear of government takeover this year came in the form of two bills (HB2081 and HB2223) and a resolution (HJ654) that purport to expose a conspiracy on the part of the United Nations to take private property through its Agenda 21. Adopted by 182 nations with a stated purpose of combating poverty and pollution, conserving natural resources and encouraging sustainable development, Agenda 21 is seen by some Virginians as a UN plot to take their land. Hopefully the General Assembly that has made the late-night comedy shows once already this session because of its actions will not pass these bills that would make the legislature look foolish to outside observers.
Too many times politicians and organizations with a specific focus take advantage of people’s fears for their own gain. Certainly all points of view need to be taken into account in the legislative process, but unreasonable fears are best dealt with through education and development of understanding and trust. It is a responsibility of elected officials to build trust and understanding, not play on the politics of fear.