Shooting .50 caliber weapon
Credit: iStock

The first time I saw a .50-caliber rifle up close and in action, I was on board the USS HALSEY, an Aegis Class guided missile destroyer, manned by a crew of more than 300 sailors, armed with Tomahawks and torpedoes. The weapon was affixed to the side of the ship, and I was standing where I had been instructed: a safe distance behind the operator who was unloading rounds of bullets into an inflated, floating target roughly one hundred yards from the ship. The exercise was part of a demonstration of the ship’s capabilities. Along with my two young sons, I was on a Tiger Cruise—U.S. Navy lingo for a recreational day at sea for friends and family of the crew. At the time, my husband was the ship’s commanding officer. My boys and I were enjoying what was essentially a “take your family to work day.”

I remembered that day when I saw a .50-caliber rifle again this week, even though it was just through a photograph. This time, it was being cradled by a smiling, civilian protestor on the streets of Richmond, Virginia, where thousands of gun-rights activists flooded the streets Monday to protest a package of gun-safety laws moving through the state legislature.

Maybe it’s because my husband has been wearing a military uniform for more years than I have known him, and maybe it’s because his work is about preparing for and preventing real war, but I usually find the sight of adults glamorizing instruments of war particularly unseemly. But I found myself weirdly grateful to the guy who brought his fifty-cal to Richmond and got his picture posted on the Internet. I’m sure he doesn’t realize it, but he demonstrated the exact opposite of the point he was trying to convey. The image of a civilian wielding a weapon of war on the streets of an American city shows exactly why we need some reasonable restrictions on the purchase and ownership of firearms.

These weapons are mounted on battleships like the HALSEY to deter small boats from approaching and possibly attacking. They weigh about 35 pounds and measure five feet long. They are not used for hunting animals. They are long-range, high-intensity, sniper rifles intended for warfare, and they can sink a small boat in a matter of seconds. They have no place in civilian life.

The guy in Richmond with the “fifty-cal” assault rifle, along with many other dress-up warriors in battle fatigues, was at the Virginia State Capitol building to challenge Governor Ralph Northam and the new Democratically-controlled General Assembly’s proposal to enact a universal background check system and a ban on assault weapons and bump stocks. Many of the protestors were draped in ammunition, and some wore face masks despite a state law prohibiting mask-wearing with the intent to conceal one’s identity. They were there to participate in Lobby Day, an annual protest sponsored by the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), a gun-rights advocacy group.

Of course, they have every right to protest and to wear whatever they please while protesting, except face masks. Thankfully, the event concluded without any incidents of violence.

Reports of the protest said that, unlike in previous years at the VCDL’s Lobby Day, many of the usual counter-protestors sat this one out. The heavily armed activists succeeded in scaring off their very threatening challengers: mothers who are terrified of gun violence in schools, and the survivors of shootings. “Ooh rah,” as the Marines say. What a tough bunch—intimidating a bunch of unarmed parents and children certainly requires a full complement of assault rifles of both the handheld and siderail-affixed variety.

Perhaps the saddest part of the gun-rights demonstration was how unnecessary it really was. The most extreme advocates among them would have us believe that any restrictions on gun sales or ownership will bring us one step closer to the government seizing every gun. But the fifty-cal is a far cry from a revolver in the drawer of your bedside table. It’s difficult to imagine how it would prove useful in quickly thwarting a home invasion unless one keeps it mounted and loaded on the kitchen counter. Imagine an America where you pull up to a stop light and the mini-van next to you isn’t sporting the latest Swedish luggage rack but two semi-automatic machine guns with laser scopes and night vision.

My fear is that this is exactly the kind of America the guy with the fifty-cal wants. That’s why he is the perfect posterchild for the very reasonable gun-safety laws making their way through Virginia’s legislature. There is not one Democrat in the Virginia General Assembly, not one member of Moms Demand Action, maybe not even one victim of gun violence who could make the case better. He is one of the most potent reminders that average citizen should not have military assault rifles.

Reasonable, law-abiding gun-rights advocates, who believe in the right to bear arms to protect their homes and families, should support these minimal restrictions. In fact, the polling shows that many do: A Quinnipiac poll from May found that 61 percent of Americans favor stricter gun laws.

Still, a tiny minority, backed by the powerful lobbying force of the National Rifle Association, has effectively prevented a nationwide restriction on civilian ownership of weapons of war. That needs to change. Otherwise, all of us will continue living in danger of seeing a fifty-cal up close and in action even if we’re nowhere near a battleship.

Sarah P. Weeldreyer

Sarah P. Weeldreyer is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and other outlets.