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Opinion: Gun rights rallies shed light on urban-rural divide

Aaron B. Andrews
The Detroit News
Demonstrators are seen during a pro-gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va.

Last week, 22,000 Virginians gathered in Richmond to protest impending legislation they say would trample on their Second Amendment rights. 

Three days earlier on the other side of the nation, a similar, albeit far smaller group of Washingtonians gathered in the state capitol of Olympia for the same reason. This transcontinental struggle speaks to a broader issue — the widening gap in America between urban and rural political priorities.  

In Washington state, when a citizens initiative passed by west-coast city-dwellers put moderate restrictions on guns and gun owners, well over half of Washington’s sheriffs stood in opposition of the initiative — nearly all of them from rural counties.

The same is happening in Virginia, where polls suggest residents in 91 of 95 counties oppose the gun bills being pushed by a Democratic legislature newly elected on the strength of urban votes.

Demonstrators stand outside a security zone before a pro-gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va.

It’s no mystery why or how this has happened. 

Population has increasingly gravitated to cities, as farming has consolidated and the small factories that sustained rural towns have closed. 

About 84% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas — that’s up from 64% in 1950 and is projected to hit 98% by 2050, according to the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems.

More than 300 urban areas in the U.S. now have populations of above 100,000.

As people move to the city in pursuit of jobs and opportunities, they bring with them their voting power, and a different view of politics. 

Increasingly, city slickers hold different values than country bumpkins. And it’s not just about guns.

The differences play out on  a range of issues — environmental, social, religious, and economic, to name a few. Rural voters, with their far more limited political influence, often feel as if their concerns aren't being heard. 

Wolves are a perfect example. In both Michigan and Washington state, the rebounding fortunes of gray wolves are evoking different reactions from those who live in cities and those who reside closest to the predators. Looking from the cities, that these majestic beasts can roam free, howl at the moon and bring balance to an ecosystem of pristine wilderness is a clear win. 

But farmers and ranchers have to deal with the consequences. Calves and heifers are slaughtered by the dozen each year, and there’s not much the farmers can do about it.

The frustration explains why a sizable minority of rural Americans, who helped elected President Donald Trump in 2016, feel as if they have been disenfranchised from the political decision-making.

What we’re seeing in the gun-rights rallies in Virginia, Washington and other states — the Second Amendment sanctuary movement — is just a glimpse of what happens when city voters attempt to impose urban values on rural Americans.

As a nation, we need to be mindful of this phenomenon, because the shift could easily change. Another John Denver could rise to inspire a new back-to-nature-movement, one that would be easier to realize today, since the internet has freed workers from offices. 

If that happens, the urban migrants will need to realize that they’re stepping out of their world and into a new one governed by radically different and deeply held values.

aandrews@detroitnews.com

Aaron Andrews is an editorial fellow at The Detroit News.