Thousands of armed pro-gun activists from across the United States rallied outside Virginia’s capitol building on Monday to protest new restrictions proposed by state lawmakers, with authorities bracing for violence.
The rally began on a cold morning with a festival-like atmosphere in the streets of Richmond. Many in the crowds were dressed in camouflage or tactical gear and carrying weapons as they exchanged pleasantries with others arriving at the event. Some browsed vendors’ pro-gun T-shirts and other merchandise, much of it carrying slogans supporting President Donald Trump.
Those backing tougher gun restrictions see Democrats taking control of the Virginia legislature for the first time in a generation on campaign promises of tougher access to arms as offering a model for other traditionally gun-friendly states.
Activists at the rally argued that Virginia is stomping on their constitutional right to bear arms and vowed that Monday’s event will help citizens understand how quickly they can lose the ability to carry guns, based on who wins at the ballot box.
“What’s going on here, if not stopped, will spread to other states,” said Teri Horne, who had traveled to Virginia from her home in Texas with her Smith & Wesson rifle and .40-calibre handgun. “They will come for our guns in other states if we don’t stop them in Virginia.” Activists said they were planning only a peaceful protest. Security was tight with a large police presence. Those wanting to enter Capitol Square to hear the morning’s speakers had to pass through a single entrance for security screening, leaving their guns outside.
Tension rose ahead of the rally after the FBI last week arrested three members of a small neo-Nazi group, who authorities said hoped to ignite a race war through violence at the gathering, reminiscent of a 2017 white supremacist rally in nearby Charlottesville.
A spokesman for the Capitol police said Van Cleave had worked closely with law enforcement on plans for the rally. High-profile national militia figures gathered for a meeting on Sunday near Richmond said they wanted Monday’s event to be peaceful, but feared the worst, including the risk of a “lone wolf” unleashing bitter fighting with a single shot.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has vowed to push through new gun control laws and is backing a package of eight bills, including universal background checks, a “red flag” law, a ban on assault rifles and a limit of one handgun-a-month purchase.
“The Virginia election last November was an indictment of guns, and it was not an outlier,” said Christian Heyne, who leads legislative efforts at the gun violence prevention group Brady.