RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Gun-rights activists and other groups began to descend on Virginia’s capital city Monday to protest Democrats’ plans to pass gun-control legislation.
Gov. Ralph Northam declared a temporary state of emergency days ahead of the rally, banning all weapons including guns from the event on Capitol Square. The expected arrival of thousands of gun-rights activists — along with members of militia groups and white supremacists — raised fears the state could again see the type of violence that exploded in Charlottesville in 2017.
Virginia’s solicitor general told a judge Thursday that law enforcement had identified “credible evidence” armed out-of-state groups planned to come to the state with the possible intention of participating in a “violent insurrection.”
Toby Heytens also suggested during his arguments in a lawsuit by gun advocates that challenged the weapons ban that the crowd could number in the tens of thousands. The Supreme Court upheld the weapons ban.
The Virginia State Police, the Virginia Capitol Police and the Richmond Police are all coordinating the event and have plans for a huge police presence at Monday’s rally with both uniformed and plainclothes officers. Police plan to limit access to Capitol Square to only one entrance and have warned rallygoers they may have to wait hours to get past security screening.
A light crowd milled near the security gate outside the Capitol early Monday before authorities started letting people in at the sole public entrance just before 7:30 a.m. Some waited to get inside the square, while others — including some with military-style rifles — had no plans to go in.
Authorities will be looking to avoid a repeat of the violence that erupted in 2017 in Charlottesville during one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists and other far-right groups in a decade. Attendees brawled with counterprotesters, and an avowed white supremacist drove his car into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring dozens more.
Law enforcement officials faced scathing criticism for what both the white supremacist groups and anti-racism protesters said was a passive response.
An RV festooned with Trump material and selling Trump merchandise parked in front of the line to the square, but was booted by a police officer shortly after it parked Monday: “You got two minutes before it’s towed. Clock’s ticking.”
Monday’s rally is being organized by an influential grassroots gun-rights group, the Virginia Citizens Defense League. The group holds a yearly rally at the Capitol, typically a low-key event with a few hundred gun enthusiasts listening to speeches from a handful of ambitious Republican lawmakers.
But this year, many more are expected to attend. Second Amendment groups have identified the state as a rallying point for the fight against what they see as a national erosion of gun rights.
Virginia Beach carpenter Andy Kincaid, 59, got up at 2 a.m. to come to Richmond, but said he thinks the number of attendees was probably overstated, as the cold weather and rumors of anti-fascist infiltrators may have kept some away.
The pushback against proposed new gun restrictions began immediately after Democrats won majorities in both the state Senate and House of Delegates in November. Much of the opposition has focused on a proposed assault weapons ban.
Virginia Democrats are also backing bills limiting handgun purchases to once a month, implementing universal background checks on gun purchases, allowing localities to ban guns in public buildings, parks and other areas, and a red flag bill that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from anyone deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.
Kem Regik, a 20-year-old private security officer from northern Virginia brought a white flag with a picture of a rifle captioned “Come and take it.”
“I don’t like what the Legislature is doing and I’m here to let them know that,” he said, while wearing a Trump ball cap. He believes the assault weapon ban proposed by Northam is the worst proposal, but also that all of the proposals on the table infringe on rights.
He said he wasn’t going to enter the square, because he thought that was where protesters would most likely get arrested. He said he wasn’t scared for his safety, pointing to a group of nearby militia-type men with guns: “This is the safest place to be.”
Kincaid echoed Regik’s lack of concern about safety, but said he too wasn’t sure if he’d go into the square. Entering the square, he said, “may conform too much to their Nazism.”