by Catherine Koebel Stromberg
The grassroots gun extremist Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) is acting exactly like an abusive stalker who just won’t go away, no matter how many times you tell him, “No really, we don’t want you and your guns here.” This year, the Steppin’ Out festival flat-out denied a booth to VCDL at their annual, family-friendly summer event in downtown Blacksburg. This is merely the latest in a multi-year dispute between VCDL and Steppin’ Out organizers. The dispute has longer and more gun-violence-soaked roots than anyone cares to admit, which we’ll discuss later.
Let’s begin by establishing that VCDL leaders acknowledge the Steppin’ Out organizers definitively never wanted them or their guns at the festival. Yet VCDL intends to show up this year anyway, to walk in a crowded festival with their guns on their hips and maybe strapped to their backs, handing out “Guns Save Lives” stickers. Who amongst us is not excited to get the chance to refuse a sticker from an aggrieved, armed man while we eat some funnel cake and wait in line for the bounce house, directly on the heels of the Gilroy Garlic Festival and Brownsville Old Timers Day shootings?
If you are wondering why go armed where you know you are not wanted, a VCDL supporter’s t-shirt at the General Assembly special session on gun reform answered simply, “Because F&*k You, That’s Why,” with an outline of an AR-15. Every time VCDL supporters show up armed and unwanted, they prove the case that Democrats should have the majority in Richmond so that popular gun control bills can be debated and voted on by our elected representatives. One of those popular gun control bills was carried by State Senator Edwards (D-Roanoke), and would give local governments authority to enact gun regulations above statewide standards. Imagine the Blacksburg Town Council finally being given the authority to tell all the abusive ex boyfriends and their armed lobbyist buddies that their guns are not coming to Steppin Out, period. That safer reality is only a few flipped seats away.
In the meantime, I hope the VCDL tires quickly of toting around guns in the hot August sun. I hope there’s no need to revisit the gun-soaked roots of the Steppin’ Out festival. A festival that “owes its name to two teens: Edward Charles Disney and the boy who [shot and] murdered him.” For before it was called Steppin’ Out, the early August festival in Blacksburg started in 1976 as Deadwood Days, an Old West-themed celebration of the 100th anniversary of Wild Bill Hickock being shot to death.
Steve Miller, owner of local art store Mish Mish, which opened in 1970, remembers that Deadwood Days got a little wild. “People would ride through town on horses with a six-gun on their hips,” he said.
In the fourth year of the festival, Edward Disney, 17, was abducted, shot and killed by a drug-and-alcohol-fueled 15 year old. Out of respect for Disney’s family and friends, the festival was cancelled in 1980, then reintroduced in 1981 as family-friendly Steppin’ Out. The culture of the festival shifted dramatically, with frolicking, anthropomorphic forest animals replacing guns on the festival t-shirts. The Blacksburg mayor insisted to the Roanoke Times that the original festival “wasn’t meant to encourage violence.”
Forty years and millions of shootings later, scholars such as Patrick Blanchfield, Priya Satia, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz now convincingly argue that glorification of gun-powered settler colonial violence is a lynchpin in the culture perpetuating our incessant American gun violence. Steppin’ Out’s organizers made the right decision to turn away from that deadly culture in 1981. The gun-toting VCDL and their “Guns Save Lives” stickers are an obvious continuation of the deadly gun glorification during the original Deadwood Days. At the 2018 Steppin’ Out festival, I witnessed a thin high school boy approach the VCDL booth, where he excitedly discussed with VCDL members the possibility of lowering the age at which he could purchase handguns. In 2019, the Steppin’ Out organizers made the right decision to again reject a deadly culture of gun glorification at Steppin’ Out booths. Our children are safer for it.