Gun-rights advocates filled Virginia’s Capitol Square and the streets of Richmond on a chilly, uneasy Monday to lobby and rally against tighter gun legislation in the commonwealth.
The size of the crowd and earlier threats of violence, along with the prospect of armed participants, added elements of anxiety to the annual Lobby Day, stirring fears that there could be a repeat of violence that broke out at the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
But, by around noon, The Associated Press reported that the rally concluded uneventfully and the mood was largely festive. An estimated 22,000 people attended, authorities told AP, and one woman was arrested on a felony charge of wearing a mask in public.
Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement that he was “thankful” the day passed peacefully and that “he will continue to listen to the voices” of Virginians while doing everything in his power “to keep our commonwealth safe.”
“The issues before us evoke strong emotions, and progress is often difficult,” Northam said.
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Instead of entering the designated rally zone, where the temporary weapons ban was in effect, many protesters packed the surrounding streets, some dressed in tactical gear. Proponents armed with assault rifles stood outside the sole security checkpoint at Capitol Square.
WTOP’s Alejandro Alvarez said security to get into Capitol Square area was similar to something at an airport. “It’s obvious the police are being very thorough and inspecting people,” he said.
Also seen among the crowd: Gadsden flags, signs reading “We the People will not comply” and “VA Democrats enough is enough,” and “Trump 2020” banners.
In turn, President Donald Trump tweeted Monday morning, “The Democrat Party in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia are working hard to take away your 2nd Amendment rights. This is just the beginning. Don’t let it happen, VOTE REPUBLICAN (sic) in 2020!”
At the rally inside the secure Capitol Square area, several speakers singled out Northam. The Democratic governor has rolled out a package of various gun-safety measures that are likely to pass with a new Democratic majority in the Senate and House of Delegates.
One of the speakers, Gun Owners of America Senior Vice President Erich Pratt, likened the gun-rights cause to that of the Founding Fathers, and he called Democrats “the party of gun control.”
Another rally speaker was Stephen Willeford, of Sutherland Springs, Texas, who gunned down a church shooter back in 2017. “We have three boxes in which to defend our freedom,” said Willeford, explaining they are the “soap box,” “the ballot box” and “a cartridge box.”
“No more negotiation,” Willeford said. “If they come to our homes, to take our arms and they infringe on our freedoms and violate our freedom, they are the aggressors.”
Democratic lawmakers said the rally wouldn’t impact their plans to pass gun-control measures, including universal background checks and a one-handgun-purchase-a-month limit, AP reported. Democrats say tightening Virginia’s gun laws will make communities safer and help prevent mass shootings like the one last year in Virginia Beach, where a dozen people were killed in a municipal building.
On Thursday, the Virginia Senate passed three bills regarding guns:
- SB 35 gives localities the power to prohibit the possession or carrying of firearms or ammunition in a public space during a permitted event.
- SB 69 makes it a Class I misdemeanor to buy more than one gun in a 30-day period, with exceptions for dealers, law enforcement officers, corrections facilities, people who go through an enhanced background check, people who hold a concealed-carry permit, licensed private security companies, people whose guns have been stolen, private sales and purchases of antique guns.
- SB 70 requires a background check for any transfer of a gun, and private sales such as at a gun show, with a long list of exceptions, including immediate family members and transfers at shooting ranges.
The bills will go to the House of Delegates. Read more about Virginia gun legislation in WTOP’s gun legislation FAQ.
Kem Regik, a private security officer from Northern Virginia, brought a white flag with a picture of a rifle, which was captioned, “Come and take it.”
Regik told AP, “The government doesn’t run us; we run the government.”
Vanessa Dallas drove to Richmond from Virginia Beach. She said the Democratic proposals in Virginia were “guaranteeing a landslide for [President] Trump in 2020.”
“We’re the good guys,” Dallas said. “… I feel safer here than anywhere.”
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert complimented the behavior of the rally-goers and said Democrats should take a lesson from them, AP reported.
“The law-abiding gun owners in attendance today are the ones who would bear the brunt of their anti-gun proposals, which would have little to no impact on crime or criminals,” he said in a statement.
The rally on Lobby Day, which is traditionally when advocates for various causes plead their case to state legislators, coincided with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Though MLK Day is a national holiday, the Virginia General Assembly was in session.
The organizers of the rally, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, had earlier estimated that up to 120,000 people were expected, but said in an email that “the police may not have fully considered the crowd size that is coming.”
“One of our members with access to police intelligence has advised us that specific threats have been uncovered to three of the speakers at the rally,” the league wrote. “Yet, just a few days ago, when specifically asked about any such threats, the Capitol Police denied knowing of any and have not shared any such information to date.”
Security concerns led to a Capitol Square event for gun-control advocates being canceled. But it didn’t keep proponents away.
Several activists spent the night before Lobby Day inside the offices of state Dels. Dan Helmer and Chris Hurst, whose girlfriend — reporter Alison Parker — was murdered during a live TV interview in 2015.
Today, we should be lobbying at the Capitol. But threats of violence forced Brady & our partners to cancel the 28th Annual Virginia Lobby Day & Vigil on MLK Day.
— Brady (@bradybuzz) January 20, 2020
Hurst told AP that he expected more people to show up than actually did, and the underwhelming numbers were an “indication that a lot of this rhetoric is bluster.”
“This cause is, like, my life’s cause,” said Mollie Davis, who was a student at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, during a fatal 2018 shooting. “This is something that I feel extremely passionate about.”
Michael McCabe, a student from Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, told AP that he started lobbying at the Virginia General Assembly after the Sandy Hook mass shooting, when he was 11 years old. He said he was not here to “engage with gun extremists,” adding, “We are really here to be present in the legislature to make our voices heard.”
McCabe said his parents support his activism but are anxious: “They’re nervous for sure.”