Gun-rights activists converge on Richmond

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.

Ahead of Monday’s rally, Northam declared a state of emergency and weapons ban around the Capitol Square area last week due to “credible, serious threats.”


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Demonstrators stand outside a security zone before a pro gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP/Julio Cortez)

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.

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.”

WTOP’s Rick Massimo, Alejandro Alvarez and Max Smith contributed to this report; Alvarez and Smith reported from Richmond. CBS News and The Associated Press also contributed.

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Protesters at the gun-rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
One of many ‘Come and Take It’ banners at the rally in Richmond, Virginia, Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
A scene from the gun-rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
(WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
A scene from the gun-rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
A protester at the gun-rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
A scene from the gun-rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
A view of the crowd at the gun-right rally in Richmond, Virginia, Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
A view of the crowd at the gun-rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
A gun-rights protester at the rally in Richmond, Virginia, Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
Gun-rights protesters converge on the Virginia State House on Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
A man walks in the crowd during a pro-gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Thousands of pro-gun supporters are expected at the rally to oppose gun control legislation like universal background checks that are being pushed by the newly elected Democratic legislature. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
A man walks in the crowd during a pro-gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Thousands of pro-gun supporters are expected at the rally to oppose gun control legislation like universal background checks that are being pushed by the newly elected Democratic legislature. (AP/Julio Cortez)
A man walks in the crowd during a pro-gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Thousands of pro-gun supporters are expected at the rally to oppose gun control legislation like universal background checks that are being pushed by the newly elected Democratic legislature. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
A man walks in the crowd during a pro-gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Thousands of pro-gun supporters are expected at the rally to oppose gun control legislation like universal background checks that are being pushed by the newly elected Democratic legislature. (AP/Julio Cortez)
Demonstrators stand outside a security zone before a pro gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Demonstrators stand outside a security zone before a pro gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP/Julio Cortez)
This altered flag was one of many Texas flags at the gun-rights protest in Richmond, Virginia, Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
A scene from the gun-rights protest in Richmond, Virginia, Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
(WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)
Culpeper County, Virginia, Sheriff Scott Jenkins speaks during a gun rights rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capital building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. Jenkins has promised to deputize thousands of his county’s gun owners if Democrats pass more restrictive gun laws. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a ‘red flag’ law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other extremist groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
Thousands of gun rights advocates attend a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capital building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a ‘red flag’ law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other extremist groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
Virginia Citizens Defense League President Philip Van Cleave addresses a rally he organized on Capitol Square near the state capital building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a ‘red flag’ law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other extremist groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
York County, Virginia, Sheriff Danny Diggs speaks during a gun rights rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capital building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a ‘red flag’ law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other extremist groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
Signs comparing Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to Adolph Hitler were carried by some of the thousands of gun rights advocates that attended a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League near the State Capitol building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a ‘red flag’ law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other extremist groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
Assembly delegates stand on the steps of the Virginia State Capital to show their support for thousands of gun rights advocates that gathered there for a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a ‘red flag’ law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other extremist groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
Gun rights advocates attend a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capitol building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers. (Getty Images/Win McNamee)
(Getty Images/Win McNamee)
Anti-white supremacy protesters hold banners as they shout anti-Trump slogans at the end of a rally by gun supporters outside the Virginia State Capitol grounds in Richmond, Virginia on January 20, 2020. – Several thousand gun rights supporters massed near the Virginia state capitol Monday for a rally under heavy surveillance and a state of emergency declared by authorities fearing violence by far-right groups. Dressed in hunting jackets and caps, rally-goers were checked for weapons as they passed through tight security before entering a fenced off area of Richmond’s Capitol Square for the so-called “Lobby Day” event. (AFP via Getty Images/ROBERTO SCHMIDT)
(AFP via Getty Images/ROBERTO SCHMIDT)
(AFP via Getty Images/ROBERTO SCHMIDT)
Thousands of gun rights advocates attend a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capital building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a ‘red flag’ law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other extremist groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
Thousands of gun rights advocates attend a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capital building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a ‘red flag’ law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other extremist groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
A flyer left in the Pocahontas Building at the Virginia State Capitol. (WTOP/Max Smith)
Thousands of gun rights advocates attend a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capital building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a ‘red flag’ law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other extremist groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
Gun rights advocates attend a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capitol building on January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a ‘red flag’ law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other far-right groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Getty Images/Zach Gibson)
Gun rights advocates chant during a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capitol building on January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a ‘red flag’ law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other far-right groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Getty Images/Zach Gibson)
Gun rights advocates attend a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capitol building on January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a ‘red flag’ law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other far-right groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Getty Images/Zach Gibson)
Gun rights advocates attend a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capitol building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers. (Getty Images/Win McNamee)
Gun rights advocates attend a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capitol building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers. (Getty Images/Win McNamee)
One of the signs referring to Va. Gov. Ralph Northam at the gun-rights rally in Richmond Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Max Smith)
Gun rights advocates attend a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capitol building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers. (Getty Images/Win McNamee)
One of the signs at the gun-rights rally at the Virginia Capitol Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Max Smith)
(WTOP/Max Smith)
The pro-gun rally begins in front of the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia. (WTOP/Max Smith)
(WTOP/Max Smith)
(WTOP/Max Smith)
(WTOP/Max Smith)
(WTOP/Max Smith)
(WTOP/Max Smith)
A protester speaks to a crowd in front of the Virginia State Capitol building in Richmond, Virginia on January 20, 2020. – Thousands of gun rights supporters descended for a rally in the grounds of the State Capitol under heavy surveillance after authorities were forced to declare a state of emergency for fear of violence by far-right groups. (AFP via Getty Images/ROBERTO SCHMIDT)
A protester holds a sign in front of the Virginia State Capitol building in Richmond, Virginia on January 20, 2020. – Thousands of gun rights supporters descended for a rally in the grounds of the State Capitol under heavy surveillance after authorities were forced to declare a state of emergency for fear of violence by far-right groups. (AFP via Getty Images/ROBERTO SCHMIDT)
(AFP via Getty Images/ROBERTO SCHMIDT)
Demonstrators stand on the capitol grounds ahead of a pro gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP/Steve Helber)
A demonstrator stands on the sidewalk before a pro gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. There was a light crowd early morning Monday outside the Capitol ahead of the rally. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
A demonstrator stands on the sidewalk before a pro gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. There was a light crowd early morning Monday outside the Capitol ahead of the rally. (AP/Julio Cortez)
A scene from the gun-rights rally outside the Virginia Capitol Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Max Smith)
A scene from the gun-rights rally outside the Virginia Capitol Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Max Smith)
A scene from the gun-rights rally outside the Virginia Capitol Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Max Smith)
Kem Regik, of Virginia, stands on the sidewalk before a pro gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. There was a light crowd early morning Monday outside the Capitol ahead of the rally. (AP/Julio Cortez)
Virginia State police troopers stand near a security checkpoint before demonstrators enter the capitol grounds ahead of a pro gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP/Steve Helber)
Demonstrators stand outside a security zone before a pro gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP/Julio Cortez)
Demonstrators stand outside a security zone before a pro gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP/Julio Cortez)
Pro-gun demonstrators gather near the Virginia Capitol in the early hours of Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Max Smith)
Pro-gun demonstrators gather at the Virginia Capitol in the early hours of Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Max Smith)
A gun-rights protester in front of the Virginia Capitol Jan. 20, 2020. (WTOP/Max Smith)
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A man walks in the crowd during a pro-gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Thousands of pro-gun supporters are expected at the rally to oppose gun control legislation like universal background checks that are being pushed by the newly elected Democratic legislature. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
A man walks in the crowd during a pro-gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Thousands of pro-gun supporters are expected at the rally to oppose gun control legislation like universal background checks that are being pushed by the newly elected Democratic legislature. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Demonstrators stand outside a security zone before a pro gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
A demonstrator stands on the sidewalk before a pro gun rally, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Richmond, Va. There was a light crowd early morning Monday outside the Capitol ahead of the rally. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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